Amid the pall cast by the legal turmoil now enveloping the Southampton Town Trustees, the members of all three of the remaining independent boards of Town Trustees on Long Island held a joint meeting last week to discuss the issues facing them, and their management and regulation of local waters and waterfronts.
Fifteen members of the ancient Trustees boards from East Hampton, Southold and Southampton, all positions that were created before 1700, gathered for a dinner of Italian take-out in the basement of Town Board last Wednesday, February 12, and discussed issues of public access, environmental concerns and the legal deluge that has swamped the embattled Southampton board.
Gathering just hours after the Southampton Town Trustees were served with an injunction ordering them to turn over their bank accounts to the town comptroller—an order the Trustees have not complied with—the legal implications of that decision dominated the discussion. Members of the Southampton board said that while it is they who have been hamstrung by two recent decisions by a state judge, Justice Peter H. Mayer, the rulings will have wider reaching impacts.
“If we go down, everybody goes down,” Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz said. “There’s a lot of special interests at work here and we are all in the way.”
In the last three weeks Justice Mayer has twice ruled against the Southampton Town Trustees, first ordering them to turn over their books to the town and then declaring that their authority to regulate construction activity along the oceanfront in the municipality did not extend into the incorporated villages, as the Trustees have claimed.
The East Hampton Town Trustees have also faced lawsuits challenging their authority to regulate construction work, mainly of protective sea walls, along the oceanfront. Nonetheless, East Hampton Town Trustee Clerk Diane McNally said she was uncomfortable talking about the legal implications of the ruling in the Southampton case.
“You’re involving us in things we were not a part of,” she said. “It’s making me very uncomfortable right now.”
The Southampton Town Trustees also highlighted other legal challenges they are facing, including a suit brought by commercial fishermen from Brookhaven Town challenging the Trustees’ authority to block non-residents from fishing in Southampton Town waters. That case, which is also before Justice Mayer, could also have far-reaching impacts on the authority for exclusive fishing rights that the Trustee boards have always asserted for their residents.
“It would basically do away with our rights,” Southampton Town Trustee Edward Warner Jr. said. “Most importantly, it puts into question one of the key elements of [Trustee authority]: that we own the bay bottom and the shellfish that reside in it.”
East Hampton Town Trustee Nat Miller said that raising awareness of the daunting duties that the Trustees face to protect the rights of residents is a key to solidifying support for their authority.
“As a younger man I know how important it is to us struggling to live here that we be able to go get some clams or go to the beach,” he said. “Just getting people to understand what it takes to keep it so you can do that is a fight.”
Ms. McNally noted that public awareness of the Trustees and their roles in local government needs to be a marquee issue for all three boards. She noted that during the recent elections, most debates or political forums did not give the candidates a chance to voice their positions.
East Hampton Town Trustee Deborah Klughers said she would like to see the three boards take up an aggressive push to stop mosquito spraying by Suffolk County around the marshes of the East End. She said the towns need to develop their own mosquito control plans so that they can turn away county efforts, which rely largely on the aerial dispersion of chemical larvicides from helicopters hovering over marshes.
Mr. Shultz said that all the boards are charged with preserving the most important natural resources the region has, which is also the key to their respective economies.
“We control the economic engine of these towns,” he said, referring to the water. “I was watching that show ‘Yukon Gold’ about these guys way out in the Yukon mining for gold and they asked one guy what he was going to do with the money, and he said, ‘I’m gonna buy a house on the beach in the Hamptons.’”