Town and Village Battle over Sand

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A sandstorm of sorts has been brewing, involving the Southampton Town Trustees and some elected officials and residents of the Village of West Hampton Dunes, and when the dust finally settles, the boundaries of the waterfront village could be altered permanently.

The issues raised by a recent lawsuit filed by the Town Trustees against the village—nearly three dozen village homeowners also are listed as defendants—started with a series of nor’easters in 1992 and 1993 that displaced and redeposited thousands of tons of sand on the northern boundary of the village abutting Moriches Bay.

The displaced sand has, in some areas, extended the distance between Dune Road and Moriches Bay by an estimated 500 feet—from about 200 to 300 feet before last decade’s storms to 700 to 800 feet in some instances. Now, that sand sits at the center of the lawsuit.

Essentially, the displaced sand has created a brand new stretch of waterfront land believed to total between 7 and 8 acres of displaced sand—an area that could be large enough to accommodate new construction. Village officials and homeowners contend that the sand is theirs and, therefore, they retain the property rights to it, allowing them to subdivide the parcels and possibly construct more homes. But the Town Trustees are pushing forward in a fight to reclaim what, in their opinion, is nothing more than redeposited bay bottom that should be protected and managed by them.

The Town Trustees consider themselves one step closer to their goal after their February victory in Suffolk County Supreme Court, when a motion to throw out their March 2007 lawsuit against the village was dismissed by Justice Thomas Whelan. The court refused to dismiss the suit, basically stating that a previous decision that allowed one village property owner to construct a home on the disputed sand did not set a precedent in West Hampton Dunes.

Village officials have not yet decided whether or not to appeal the ruling. If they do, the trial is not expected to begin for at least a year, according to attorney Richard Cahn of Melville-based Cahn and Cahn, the law firm representing the Town Trustees.

However, village officials in late March filed a motion asking Justice Whelan to explain his ruling. In response, the Town Trustees filed an appeal on Friday, in case the judge changes his decision and rules in favor of West Hampton Dunes, according to Mr. Cahn.

“The whole case will be a very long, drawn-out battle,” said attorney Jonathan Sinnreich of Sinnreich and Kosakoff LLC in Central Islip, who is representing Claire Vegliante, the wife of West Hampton Dunes Mayor Gary Vegliante, and 18 other defendants in the town lawsuit. “It’s an important battle because it affects the property rights of many people and the boundary of West Hampton Dunes and Southampton. They’re important and complicated issues, and there’s governmental power and money involved.”

In spite of the loss in court last month, Mayor Vegliante remains confident that village officials and homeowners will win the bigger battle and retain ownership of the disputed land.

“You own to where your feet get wet,” Mayor Vegliante said during a recent interview, explaining that he believes his village’s northern boundary ends at the high-water mark of Moriches Bay.

The looming courtroom battle over the redeposited sand will also ultimately decide whether three village property owners will be able to subdivide their bayfront properties. And in the case involving Ms. Vegliante, the courts will determine if she can build a new home on land that Southampton Town and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation claim was illegally subdivided.

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