In the wake of a court victory over the use of a stretch of Amagansett beachfront in four-wheel-drive vehicles, East Hampton Town officials this week held off on moving forward with plans to seize ownership of the beach through eminent domain—and may shelve the condemnation process entirely as they await an expected appeal of the ruling.
The Town Board on Thursday, November 17, tabled a resolution to approve the scope of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, to be completed as part of the condemnation proceedings. The EIS would be an exhaustively detailed and costly analysis of all the potential impacts of the condemnation that would take several months to complete. The form is required by state law before any condemnation could be approved.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the condemnation is at a crucial and very expensive phase, and that the board wanted to take the time to discuss with attorneys whether the condemnation of what is known as “Truck Beach,” and the shore in front of the White Sands resort, was likely to be necessary to protect access to the ocean beach before moving to the next step in the process.
“Our consultants were ready to accept the scope of work for the environmental impact statement, but we haven’t had a chance to discuss how to proceed with respect to the condemnation,” Mr. Cantwell said on Friday. “The [EIS] is a very expensive portion of the process, so we just want to delay starting that until we have an opportunity to talk to our attorneys.”
Michael Rikon, the attorney handling the condemnation for the town, said that in light of the ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Ralph T. Gazzillo, the town may not need to proceed with the condemnation. But even if it does, the ruling appears to have lifted the threat of a large value award to whoever the owners may be, Mr. Rikon said.
The homeowners’ lawsuit, in part, had claimed that original deeds for large chunks of Napeague sold by the East Hampton Town Trustees to a developer included the oceanfront, and that ownership of the beaches had been passed on to the homeowners associations in subsequent subdivision titles without guarantees of public access.
In his decision, Justice Gazzillo did not rule who owned the beaches, only that the homeowners’ case had failed to prove that they own them. But he did seem to acknowledge that whomever the beaches legally belong to, their use by the public has been undisputed for decades.
In their public campaign to discourage the town from moving forward with the condemnation, some of the homeowners had warned that condemnation could bind the town to paying millions, possibly tens of millions, as compensation for the fair value of the lost property. The town and its representatives had countered that they were confident that the beach, since it can’t be built upon or altered in any way to the owners’ liking, would be found to be of much lesser value.
But Mr. Rikon said the conclusion in Justice Gazzillo’s ruling amounts to a legal easement over the land, giving the right of public access—and makes the land essentially worthless.
“The decision is pretty definitive in that the judge established that the public have an easement, regardless of title,” Mr. Rikon said. “Because the court has found the beaches burdened with a public easement, the only value they could have is $1.”
The attorney nodded to an eminent domain case not long ago in Amagansett in which the town condemned the narrow alley that runs between the public parking lot and Montauk Highway alongside Indian Wells Tavern. A judge found the value of the alleyway, since it had been used by the public for decades, to be $1.
Mr. Rikon said that it would be possible for the town to continue with the condemnation, just to take the issue of the title completely off the table, legally, in the anticipated appeal by the homeowners. He said condemnations of property for which there is no legally clear owner are common, and are often done specifically to clear up title disputes.
“But, in my opinion, it may not be necessary any longer to proceed with the condemnation,” Mr. Rikon said. “The appeal is expected—but that will go nowhere. There’s no basis in that decision for it to be overturned, either on the law or on the facts.”