Officials Draw a Line in the Sand

Southampton Press, Oct. 6, 2005
By Michael Wright

As feeding fish splashed in the surf and boats trade in and out of Shinnecock Inlet behind them, a group of elected officials trumpeted their support on Monday morning for the right of East End residents to ride their four-wheel-drive vehicles on area beaches.

That right, officials said while standing before a crowd of nearly 100 people on Dune Road, has been threatened in recent months by legislation sponsored by a State Assemblyman from Westchester, and a notice of claim filed by a group of beachfront homeowners in Southampton Village. But the town, county and state officials who gathered in Hampton Bays on Monday swore to stave off such challenges that seek to limit beach vehicle access.

At Monday’s rally, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle unveiled legislation that they said would guarantee that local government agencies continue to regulate vehicle access on public beaches. Both said they intend to introduce the bill in their respective houses in Albany when the legislature reconvenes in January.

“It is the beaches that … make the East End special,” Mr. Thiele told the crowd that gathered on the west side of the Shinnecock Canal. And they’re not just something pretty to look at. They are part of the public character.”

In the crowd were representatives of associations whose members depend upon vehicle access to beaches, including the Long Island Beach Buggy Association, the Surfrider Foundation and the Montauk Surfcasters Association.

Officials and residents agreed that while Southampton has been the focus of the fight over vehicle access on public beaches in recent months, the proposed legislation that would have limited access also threatens the rights of fishermen and surfers throughout Long Island. “Right behind us [is] the front line,” Southampton Town Trustee Scott Strough said, pointing to the beaches of Southampton Village on the opposite shore of the inlet. “But the gravity of this is not only apparent in Southampton, it’s all of Long Island.”

Last spring, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester County introduced legislation that, if adopted, would have forced municipalities to apply to the state Department of Environmental Conservation before they could allow drivers access to public beaches. The legislation stated that vehicles driving on the beach contribute to erosion, something opponents of the bill note has never been formally documented by any agency, scientific study or environmental organization.

The Brodsky bill was narrowly passed in the State Assembly, after what Mr. Thiele described as “much political wrangling,” but was never brought up for a vote in the State Senate.

East End officials on Monday decried Mr. Brodsky’s legislation as an attempt to usurp local control of the beaches, because of pressure from a small group of wealthy property owners. When the bill was first introduced, many opponents pointed to Southampton oceanfront homeowner Lowell Harwood, who has made political contributions to Mr. Brodsky’s campaign and is opposed to vehicles accessing the beach. Mr. Harwood has denied that he had any involvement with Mr. Brodsky’s legislation.

But those gathered on the beach on Monday continued to allude to Mr. Harwood’s perceived involvement with the measure, and that of other wealthy oceanfront property owners, as being behind the anti-beach driving legislation.

“This is really about a few special interests trying to take away the rights of the many,” Mr. Thiele said. “And that is something we simply cannot stand for on the East End.”

This past summer, a group of Southampton Village homeowners threatened to file a lawsuit over a policy that allows four-wheel drive vehicles to use the beach in front of their waterfront houses. The notice of claim charges the village and Town Trustees with creating a public and private nuisance by allowing vehicles access to a quarter-mile section of the ocean beach, known to locals as the “picnic area.” To date, a lawsuit has not been filed.

The legislation that will be proposed by Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle mandates that the authority to regulate motor vehicle access to ocean beaches rests entirely with local municipal agencies. In Southampton and East Hampton, for example, the beaches are controlled and regulated by the Town Trustees in each municipality.

“We want to make sure that our towns and our trustees are the ones who get to decide how our beaches are best managed and best protected,” Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said in support of the legislation.

Mr. Thiele said that while he remains optimistic that the bill will eventually become law, it will be an even greater priority to make sure that an updated version of the Brodsky bill does not receive approval from the State Legislature.

“Next year, we want to ensure that the Brodsky bill never even gets out of the environmental committee, and put a stake through its heart once and for all,” said Mr. Thiele, a former Southampton Town supervisor. “The last time I checked, the surf wasn’t that good in Scarsdale.”