Last week, in The Seaview at Amagansett, Ltd. v. Town of East Hampton Justice Paul J. Baisely, Jr. found the Town of East Hampton and several of its officials in civil and criminal contempt of the Appellate Division, Second Department’s 2021 decision that restricted access to a 4,000-foot long area of oceanfront property commonly known as “Truck Beach” in Napeague, New York. The court did not consolidate fourteen actions relating to criminal trespass summons by local fishermen in connection with a staged protest.
The dispute in this litigation arises out of ownership and use of an area of private beach that was traditionally used by local baymen to fish when this area of waterfront was sparsely populated. More specifically, the case deals with disputed area of beach landward of the mean high-water mark of the Atlantic Ocean that was conveyed in 1882 by the Town Trustees to Arthur W. Benson (the “Benson Deed”) and hinges on a reservation of rights in the deed. This deed contains an easement “reserved to the inhabitants of the Town of East Hampton the right to land fish boats and netts to spread the nets on the adjacent sand and care for the fish and materials as has been customary heretofore on the South Shore of the Town lying westerly of these conveyed premises.”
By the mid 2000’s Truck Beach was used less for fishing and more for local day trippers to the frustration of the summer homeowners along this area of contested beach front. In 2009, the waterfront homeowners began a contentious legal battle to quiet title on Truck Beach once and for all.
In February 2021, the Second Department found that the disputed beach area was held by the waterfront homeowners association (HOA) in fee simple absolute and did not confer upon the Town any regulatory power to issue permits allowing members of the public to operate and park vehicles on any portion of the beach owned by HOA. The decision went further and enjoined the Town from issuing permits to allow driving on Truck Beach.
Between February and September 2021, the Town issued 4,016 resident beach driving permits and 111 nonresidential permits for Truck Beach and did not inform any of the permits holders that driving on Truck Beach was prohibited. On May 28, 2021, the Town installed signs permitting vehicle access to Truck Beach but limited it to “fishing and fishing-related purposes.”
In April 2021, the HOA moved for an order holding the Town in civil contempt for violating the appellate court decision. On January 26, 27 and February 10, 2022 a contempt hearing was conducted in Suffolk Supreme, before Justice Baisely.
As a result of the hearing, the court held that limiting vehicular access to “fishing and fishing-related purposes” was inconsistent with the plain language of the Appellate Division decision. Justice Baisely found the Town in civil and criminal contempt for demonstrating an “appallingly studied indifference and deliberate disobedience of the lawful and unequivocal order of this court and the Appellate Division” and order the Town to pay the HOA $239,000.00 and directed the Town Clerk to revoke all permits issued by the Town since February 3, 2021.
The Town of East Hampton has appealed the decision to the Appellate Division.