Southampton Town Trustees Dealt Another Legal Blow

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For the second time in as many weeks a state judge has dealt a significant legal blow to the authority of the Southampton Town Trustees.

In a decision handed down Tuesday, State Supreme Court Justice Peter H. Mayer ruled that the Town Trustees do not hold any standing of authority over the beachfront within the Village of West Hampton Dunes or, by extension, any other oceanfront village within the town, other than to regulate uses of the beach that are available to all town residents.

Judge Mayer agreed with attorneys for West Hampton Dunes that the Town Trustees do not have any authority within the villages to regulate, limit or control the movement or placement of sand or dirt, or the construction of any structures within or on the village’s beaches.

“The Trustees’ Blue Book provisions are ineffective and cannot operate within the boundaries of an incorporated village, except with respect to the management of the specific activities and uses reserved to the Town’s inhabitants,” Judge Mayer wrote, referencing the Trustees’ bylaws and regulations, which they call the “Blue Book.”

The ruling puts a finer point on a 2012 decision, also by Judge Mayer, and two previous court decisions declaring that the Trustees do, in fact, have broad authority to regulate and control activities within the easement over ocean beaches that they hold on behalf of all town residents. In that ruling the judge had addressed the authority of the Trustees within the easement, but had not specifically addressed whether they carried any authority over activities not related to the purposes of the easement and within the village boundaries. His most recent ruling is unequivocal.

And yet, Trustees’ attorney Richard Cahn said he is baffled by what he called the inconsistency of Judge Mayer’s most recent decision and his stance in the prior cases.

“For one thing, he now says that he didn’t make a ruling in the Quogue … cases, in which he said that the Trustees have the right to regulate the ocean beaches to protect the public’s easement,” Mr. Cahn said. “He now says, out of the blue sky, that he didn’t mean that to apply inside the villages.

“He completely ignores the fact that those other cases involved properties within the village, and that the Village of Quogue is itself involved in one of those cases,” he continued. “So, he issued a decision just to put a spin on a decision he issued long ago.”

Judge Mayer referenced his own 2012 rulings in the most recent decision, saying that they “declared that the Trustees do have the right to regulate activities to protect their easement area on ocean beaches.”

The Trustees have long claimed, and argued in court, that their authority over the public easement along the beaches gives them the ability to regulate activities that could impact or threaten the existence of that easement, namely the construction of hardened structures along the shoreline that could cause the erosion of the beach over which the easement is imposed. The Trustees have required that any oceanfront property owner seek a permit from them if they were to construct or install a protective structure on the beachfront, such as a seawall, bulkhead or the long tubes of sand known as geotubes.

Over the last 20 years, the assertion of that authority has led to numerous lawsuits by homeowners against the Trustees, and vice-versa. The Trustees currently have lawsuits pending against the villages of Quogue and Southampton, and several of their residents, stemming from the construction of seawalls or the installation of geotubes without the consent of the Trustees.

In this week’s decision, the judge notes that the town has given the Trustees the authority to regulate any activities seaward of the crest of the dunes, but that such authority does not apply within the incorporated villages.

Just two weeks ago Judge Mayer had also returned a ruling against the Trustees in a case brought by some residents of West Hampton Dunes that declared that the Trustees were not a sovereign government body that could maintain its own bank accounts outside of the direct purview of the town Comptroller’s Office and funding approvals of the Town Board. The suit was intended to strip the Trustees of their ability to fund legal challenges or defense of their authority by placing control of their funding in the hands of Town Board members who are less willing to wage legal battles with residents. The Trustees have pledged to appeal that ruling as well.

The actual net effect of the most recent ruling on West Hampton Dunes is probably fairly negligible, other than to strike another blow against the longtime adversaries of Village Mayor Gary Vegliante and a handful of other West Hampton Dunes residents. Unlike in other parts of the town, West Hampton Dunes residents rarely partake in the kinds of activities the ruling would seem to bar the Trustees from regulating, like trucking in sand to rebuild eroded dunes, and there has never been an application or effort by a village homeowner to build hardened protective structures along the oceanfront of their properties.

The village and several of its residents, including Mr. Vegliante’s family, have been embroiled in a series of lawsuits with the Trustees over the last decade, both as plaintiffs and defendants. The legal sparring was started by the Trustees, who sued Mr. Vegliante’s wife, Clare, and several other residents over their claims to development rights on several acres of land within the village that was created during a breach of the barrier island that now constitutes the village in the 1990s. The Trustees claim that the land should still be considered part of the bottom of Moriches Bay, which they control, and should not be built on. The Trustees settled with many of the homeowners, but the suit with the Vegliantes and six others continues more than seven years later. The village and some residents have filed a series of lawsuits of their own, including the one challenging the Trustees’ right to control their own funds that Judge Mayer also ruled on recently.

Mr. Vegliante—an unabashed critic of the Trustees who thinks the board itself should be dissolved and all their authorities handed over to the Town Board, as has been done in all but three East End towns—said that Judge Mayer’s recent rulings are marginalizing the authority of the Trustees. That dwindling authority, should Judge Mayer’s opinions stand, would seem to cast doubt on the need for the continue existence of the Trustees as a segment of local government, according to Mr. Vegliante.

“There’s a reason only three towns still have these boards,” he said, noting that he recently attended a statewide conference for village mayors. “I spent three days in Albany listening to the state talk about how we need to consolidate, we need to get rid of duplication and overlaps, we need to have less levels of government. And yet theses guys still exist.”

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