A state court judge issued a resounding dismissal of claims by more than 100 Amagansett property owners that they are the rightful owners of some 5,500 feet of ocean beach on Napeague, and can restrict access by 4×4 vehicles if they see fit.
The judge also threw out claims by the property owners that the use of the beaches in front of their homes, or hotel in the case of one plaintiff, is an unreasonable nuisance that the town should not allow.
Supreme Court Justice Ralph T. Gazillo, said in his decision that the case presented by attorneys for a group of homeowners associations in eastern Amagansett and Napeague failed to provide convincing proof that the chain of title presented by the homeowners, dating back to the sale of the several large swaths of Napeague to developer Arthur Benson by the East Hampton Town Trustees in the late 1800s, includes the beachfront and would allow the new owners to restrict public usage.
“The undersigned is not at all persuaded that the plaintiffs have established their ownership of the beach,” Judge Gazillo wrote in his 40-page decision. “Taken one step further, the absence of ownership severely undermines the support for the balance of their ‘nuisance’ claims. Even if … that were not the case and ownership had been demonstrated to the law and the court’s satisfaction, however, the court is also unpersuaded that those claims have been sufficiently proven and would otherwise survive objective scrutiny.”
The homeowners are expected to appeal Judge Gazillo’s decision, but for the time being, town officials are celebrating.
“This is really good news,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell on Monday. “I’m really excited about this. The court has solidly rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, in every case. It’s a very strong decision.”
“We think it is fantastic that the court saw the facts as we did and backed up what we believed to be true all along, and that the use of the beach doesn’t rise to the level of a nuisance by any means,” said Tim Taylor, president of the 4×4 advocates group Citizens for Access Rights. “Hopefully, the plaintiffs and homeowners will not continue to waste taxpayers’ money. The facts aren’t going to change.”
The homeowners, and White Sands Motel owner Bernard Kiembock, have argued, since filing the first of two parallel lawsuits in 2009, that the parcels of land that eventually became their subdivisions included the ribbons of sand along the shoreline and that the titles to that land had been transferred with each subsequent division and resale of the original parcels.
They had claimed ownership to about 4,000 linear feet of beach between Napeague Lane and the boundary of Napeague State Park, an area commonly referred to as “Truck Beach” for the lineup of vehicles that park there on summer weekends. The second lawsuit, filed by the owners of the White Sands Motel and merged with the Amagansett homeowners’ lawsuit, claims ownership of another approximately 1,500 linear feet east of the state park, which was also part of the original Benson deed. Both parties sought to block the town from allowing the use of the beach by 4×4 vehicles.
Judge Gazillo was at times highly critical of the plaintiffs case and, in particular, the expert witnesses they called on to support their claims during the 5-day trial in June.
The judge, in somewhat odd form, leveled direct criticisms of many of the witnesses who testified at the trial, painting some of the plaintiffs themselves who took the witness stand in September as “evasive” and “dogmatic” and some of the testimony as “confusing, confounding, contradictory … and too slender a reed to strengthen the persuasiveness of the plaintiffs’ arguments,” he wrote. The judge even seemed to ridicule one of the plaintiff’s witnesses, engineer Charles Voorhis, for his confusion over tide cycles, which he said wholly discounted his testimony about the physical impacts of vehicles driving on the beach.
He also cast aside claims of particular impacts caused by the use of the beach by vehicles. He noted that there is no evidence of any unusual illnesses or injuries suffered along that particular stretch of beach and dismissed the claim by Mr. Kiembock that vehicles are a nuisance to his business by noting the motel owner’s own subsequent admission that his motel rarely has vacancies.
One of the plaintiffs is Cindy Crain, who formed a citizens group dubbed SAFE that collected signatures opposing the use of the beach by 4x4s. She said on Monday that the group is disappointed in the ruling, which she called “flawed,” but is confident that she and her fellow plaintiffs would ultimately prevail.
“On behalf of the thousands of East Hampton families who support SAFE’s goals to eliminate beach driving on densely crowded beaches … we will continue to work diligently,” Ms. Crain said in a statement.
In response to the lawsuit, the town started condemnation proceedings to force the sale of the beachfront if it were found by the courts to be owned privately, a costly process that will now be put on the shelf to await any appeals that may come.
At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Gazillo, who is retiring at the end of the year, appealed to the attorneys for both sides to find a settlement solution to avoid years of appeals. In his ruling, he reiterated his pleading as a coda to his career.
“These cases have already assumed a life of their own and have the potential to outlive some of the participants,” he wrote. “Sadly, even after this opinion is issued, after the years of litigation, all of the efforts of a collection of very fine, respected, and capable trial attorneys, as well as all of my efforts and those of all the judges assigned to this case before me, nothing has resolved these controversies. It was and remains my earnest hope, however that the parties will resolve their differences, avoid further litigation and move forward. Life is too short.”