Now that a State Supreme Court justice has dismissed assertions by oceanfront property owners in Amagansett that they have a claim to what is commonly called Truck Beach, the Southampton Town Trustees are hoping it’s a hint that a similar beach battle they’re engaged in could go their way.
In his recent decision, Justice Ralph T. Gazzillo threw out an argument by the Amagansett property owners that vehicles driving on the beach in front of their homes, and in front of a resort in the case of one plaintiff, is an unreasonable nuisance that East Hampton Town should not allow. He also said the homeowners’ attorneys failed to provide convincing proof that the chain of title presented by the homeowners, dating back to the sale of large pieces of land on Napeague to developer Arthur Benson by the East Hampton Town Trustees in the late 1800s, includes the beach and thus allows the present owners to restrict its use by the public.
The Southampton Town Trustees are embroiled in a lawsuit filed against them by homeowners on Meadow Lane in Southampton Village, which is also on the ocean. That lawsuit renews efforts to limit the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles on a popular stretch of beach in front of their property, known as the Picnic Area.
Steven Stern, an attorney from Carle Place-based Sokoloff Stern LLP who represents the Southampton Town Trustees, said the Truck Beach decision in Amagansett “bodes very well for us” and that “the claims are similar.”
The Southampton lawsuit was filed by attorney Nica B. Strunk on behalf of the property owners, Kathleen Araskog Thomas, Andrew S. Thomas, Rand V. Araskog and Jessie M. Araskog, in October 2015. The suit claims that the Village of Southampton and the Southampton Town Trustees are unfairly and illegally allowing vehicles on a small portion of the beach during the day in the summer months, while excluding vehicles from other beaches. Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is the State Department of Environmental Conservation.
While the homeowners in Southampton Village own the beach from their house to the mean high water mark, the Trustees hold a public access easement along all ocean beaches within the town, which extends from the toe of the natural dunes to the high tide line. The Dongan Patent, from 1686, established that easement and allows the Town Trustees to regulate activities on it such as fishing and collecting seaweed.
In the Picnic Area lawsuit, the homeowners claim that village and town ordinances designate the 2,000-foot stretch of sand as the lone daytime access point for vehicles in the town, which puts an unfair burden on those who live next to it and therefore violates equal protection statutes of the U.S. Constitution. They also claim that Picnic Area beachgoers are rude, get drunk on the beach, defecate and urinate in the dunes, and leave their garbage—claims also made by homeowners in the Truck Beach lawsuit.
On behalf of the Southampton Town Trustees, Mr. Stern submitted a memorandum of law to the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Suffolk County on Monday. In it, he compared the Truck Beach decision to the situation at the Picnic Area.
“The plaintiffs made similar nuisance allegations concerning the number of vehicles on the beaches in front of their homes and the behavior of the people who came there by truck,” the memorandum said. “They alleged the use of vehicles has increased, the people are rude and disrespectful, they drink, they litter, defecate and urinate on the beach, and they create dangerous situations. As many as 250 vehicles are on the beach at a time.
“The court dismissed the case, finding the beach activities did not create any ‘damage’ that was ‘appreciable,’” the attorney continued. “This case should be no different.”
The Araskog family, who have all dropped out of the lawsuit with the exception of Ms. Araskog Thomas, have said through their attorney, Ms. Strunk, that they would prefer to have no vehicles on the beach at all.
In the memorandum filed by Sokoloff Stern LLP on Monday, the attorneys for the Trustees noted, “Under similar circumstances of complaints about the permitting of beach driving on East Hampton beaches, Justice Gazzillo dismissed the plaintiffs’ equal protection claims, holding plaintiffs’ rights were not violated and they could not show ‘any of the acts or omissions of the town were motivated by anything other than a legitimate and justifiable rationale.’”
Ultimately, Mr. Stern requested a motion to dismiss the Araskog family’s complaint in its entirety.
“I think things are looking up,” Southampton Town Trustee Scott Horowitz said on Wednesday, November 16. When the recent verdict is combined with additional findings in recent cases, he said, “I think things can start going in our direction. I’d rather be an optimist about it.”
Although she would not comment on the Truck Beach decision, Ms. Strunk said on Friday, “It is completely different, and my client is moving forward.”
On Wednesday, Southampton Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr. stressed the importance of the easement and how current and future property owners on the ocean need to recognize it.
“When they purchase these oceanfront properties, they need to realize there’s an easement—or there’s an ownership in East Hampton—with the property in front of them, and they’re stuck with historical uses that have been going on for centuries,” Mr. Warner said. “They have to respect and honor that. That’s the important thing.”