Start a sentence anywhere in East Hampton with the phrase “beach access” and quite likely it will end with the words “Truck Beach” -- the sobriquet for the frontline in the fight, now in its second decade, between the Town and a group of mostly seasonal/second-house owners on five roads in Napeague running south down from Rt. 27 to the dunes.
Directly over those dunes, for decades --but in increasing numbers since the 1990’s as the lots in the subdivisions were being built luxuriously upon– a battalion of town residents have driven onto the beach and parked their 4x4s side by side and set up camp for the day, 100-200 strong on summer weekends. Vehicles driving on and parking on the beach in this area have been exempt from the Town's seasonal prohibition of beach vehicle operation on many other public and road-end beaches between the hours of 10am to 6pm from Memorial Day weekend to mid-September, in the name of tradition.
In the action known formally as “Seaview at Amagansett Ltd v Trustees of Freeholders & Commonalty of Town of East Hampton,” a state court rendered a decision in February 2021 siding with house-owner plaintiffs' claims of exclusive ownership of the beach itself, via deeds stretching back 140 years, and in September, the Town's motion to appeal was denied, but Truck Beach continues in a state of active litigiousness, and in sight-lines and headlines locally and beyond.
On the table remains the possibility the Town will seize ownership of that stretch of beach through its powers of eminent domain, which, back in September 2021, Town Supervisor Van Scoyoc, supported by Town Trustees, was quoted: “I think that’s the direction we should go.”
While the "taking" would yield immediate gratification, it will likely ignite incendiary and time-chewing litigation over whether it will be hundreds of thousands or hundreds of millions of dollars of “market value” due the property owners in return for condemnation – a rather risky scenario for taxpayers, to be sure. I continue to hope that leadership, rather than litigation, will be the vehicle to bring this issue to a conclusion and restore some balance once and for all.
Though Truck Beach remains the nexus of beach access debate, another access-related skirmish broke out unexpectedly a couple of months ago on a different front: Dolphin Drive. A short road 2.5 miles east of Truck Beach, it’s the eastern border of a rather small neighborhood Town maps refer to as "Montauk-on-Sea" (even though it is in Amagansett), but colloquially known as the “White Sands” neighborhood, referring to the mid-20th-century motel occupying a central spot there. First subdivided in the 1950’s and now densely developed with mostly modest and aging houses on 130 significantly undersized lots in a 2-by-3 block grid – it’s a place that no one historically would characterize as “lavish” or "exclusive," especially in the context of the Hamptons.
(As an aside, that could be changing, as speculative developers, wealthy individuals and "big-deal" architects --or "big machers" as my grandmother from the old country would have called them, with a shrug and an ironic wink-- have "discovered" this characterful and unfussy neighborhood because of its proximity to the ocean. New owners buying up the houses are making aggressive applications to the Zoning Board of Appeals to demolish or expand existing structures and construct the biggest and most high-end houses they can wedge into these 6,000-7,000 square foot lots, threatening the unique character of this cherished pocket neighborhood and removing even more of what's left of the native vegetation and dune land. Authenticity is under attack here, as it is in so many other places around East Hampton such as Beach Hampton, the Lanes, the SANS communities, and Culloden.
I hope the Dolphin Drive residents will channel their energies and voices towards this pending development tsunami with the intensity they showed while addressing the extra parking spots, in order to press the Zoning Board to use their codified discretion and stringently ensure required "restraint" balances any "relief" they grant. High-end, over-scaled redevelopment is the current existential threat to this neighborhood, way more so than whether five more cars worth of people cross around the primary dune on foot to get to the ocean.)
Dolphin Drive is also the western boundary of the Town-owned “South Flora” parcel, acquired from a developer for $8.4 million in 2001 and designated a Town Nature Preserve in October, 2014. South Flora, bounded on the east side by the Ocean Colony resort, comprises 38 acres of some of the more idyllic duneland ecosystem and sizable primary dune structures you’ll find anywhere left in town, as well as 1700 linear feet of shoreline.
In the January 13, 2022 edition, the East Hampton Star reported that, among numerous recommendations, the Beach, Parks, and Recreation Recovery and Advisory Group suggested “discussion of added parking along the right of way at the terminus of Dolphin Drive should be renewed.” But that seemed to go unnoticed until when, at the May 10 Town Board meeting, Councilman Lys raised the possibility of adding five parking spots along Dolphin Drive, near the 24A beach access cut. perhaps looking for a way that members of the public could better access a foot path trail for explorations of the interior of the South Flora preserve or for direct access the beach.
This mere mention drew swift and fierce response. Immediately, a number of the neighborhood residents mounted an effort to extinguish the spark of the idea before it progressed to formal board discussion let alone resolution. At the very next Town board meeting and for several weeks thereafter, residents stood up in vociferous and emotional opposition during "public portion,” wrote letters to the Star, and continued their offensive at the meetings of both the Springs and Amagansett CACs, reminding everyone that this had been proposed twice in the past over the last decade, and was ultimately rejected and thought to be firmly put to rest back in 2014/2015.
As someone who values -- and encourages -- East Hampton citizens’ rights to speak up, I appreciate how quickly the community members came together to engage with the Board. Unfortunately, the well-meaning passion of some was hijacked by one, whose commentary was so charged with anger and loaded with personal attacks and allegations of decade-stretching conspiracies, that the rational argument was lost. Though I don’t think adding five parking spots on the Dolphin Drive roadside is necessarily the best idea, I do support Councilman Lys’s right to raise it publicly and discuss it with fellow board members, and I believe the attempts to shame and smear him for doing so were contemptible. In my opinion, any conversation about beach access is good conversation.
To state clearly what I believe is a rational counter: relative to its size, this small, dense neighborhood already provides meaningful public beach access to the Town -- with three numbered pedestrian beach-access points, a public parking lot at Atlantic Drive, and a well-known, well-trafficked beach drive-on access point -- and the White Sands motel brings a meaningful amount of transient traffic to this residential neighborhood. Whether the Town is hoping to create access to trails within South Flora reserve, or if the intent is to provide ocean beach access, alternatives exist.
Though not widely known, to the east side of Lobster Roll, the Town owns two contiguous parcels with an access road from 27 connecting to South Flora Preserve, and those lots have been deemed “appropriate” by the Town for parking, given that over time, they have already been “meaningfully disturbed.” It seems reasonable that the Town could create five or perhaps more spots there to connect not only with the preserve trails, but also possibly provide access to the ocean via a low-impact footpath option. As the 2015 Management Plan for South Flora Nature Preserve made clear: “A prominent reason for the purchase of South Flora was to provide access to the ocean beach.”
The Truck Beach debacle and Dolphin Drive kerfuffle should make us all reflect more deeply about beach access as well as the scale of development that continues to be permitted along our shorelines...There is a lot we can and should do.
The Truck Beach debacle and Dolphin Drive kerfuffle should make us all reflect more deeply about the Town’s choices over the last few decades not to seek and secure public beach access in various other locations, as well as about the scale of development that continues to be permitted along our shorelines.
For example, I often wonder why East Hampton never required a public parking area, like the one on Napeague Lane or Atlantic Drive, as a condition of approval of the four contiguous subdivisions from Sandcastle Lane to Shipwreck Drive in the early/mid 1980’s.
Looking at population size and land area, though the town has a full and beautiful array of bay, sound and harbor beaches for all residents to enjoy, we know that for many, in the summer, our ocean beaches are the jewel in the crown, and that access to them is most important. And from that perspective it seems we are under-resourced when it comes to public parking capacity for ocean beaches in season, especially ones with lifeguards.
As a benchmark, East Hampton Village covers just 4.9 square miles, and along its 3-mile stretch of ocean shoreline, it maintains five public Village resident beaches -- Two Mile Hollow, Egypt, Main, Wiborg and Georgica -- three (about to be four) with lifeguards. By my rough analysis, comparing the Village resident population of 1,388 with my estimate of parking spots at each beach, the Village beaches in total offer one parking spot per every two to three full-time Village residents, and perhaps one for every six or seven people when population swells in the summer.
Compare that with much of the Town of East Hampton. By my estimate, for the 50-55 square miles of land west of Montauk, there are seven Town public ocean beaches: Town Line (split with Southampton), Beach Lane, Indian Wells, Atlantic Ave, Napeague Lane, Atlantic Drive and Navahoe Road. Comparing my estimate of the combined number of parking spots at each of these with the recent population statistic of 23,434 (ex.the Village and Montauk) these Town beaches provide around one spot per 50 full-time residents or 150+ people in season.
(A note here: I am separating Montauk out from this first pass at analysis not because I don't care, but because of its distance/geographic separation from about 85% of the Town resident population, as well as that I still have more to research about other public beach access areas in our easternmost Hamlet. )
It’s not so much about the past as it is about going forward with a creative, multi-pronged approach to protect and expand public beach access.
Regarding geographic gaps, in season, nowhere in the eight horizontal miles between Beach Lane and Indian Wells beaches will any town resident, many living up to eight miles vertically north, find ocean-beach parking lot access—with Village beaches off limit to Town residents from May 15 to September 15 (unless you purchase one of the elusive $500 seasonal Village visitor passes) and much if not all of the rest of the shoreline publicly inaccessible from the road side year round behind the private Association and the estates of Georgica and Further Lane. And along the 9-10 miles of coastline after Atlantic Avenue beach to Kirk Park in Montauk, though there are several dozen pedestrian walk-on points and also State park, we find fewer than 50 Town resident public parking spots by the ocean.
But it’s not so much about the past as it is about going forward with a creative, multi-pronged approach to protect and expand public beach access. There is a lot we can and should do. Here are five ideas I'd like to propose.
First, let’s renew efforts to establish additional road-end parking areas for town resident beach public access wherever we can and especially along the Napeague stretch out through Hither Hills along Old Montauk Highway all the way towards Montauk Hamlet center.
Handfuls of parking spots at road ends and smaller parking lots like we have at Napeague Lane, Atlantic Drive and Navahoe Lane are an important way to ensure a wonderful variety of access points and experiences for the public without putting too much pressure on small, dense neighborhoods or individual roads.
For example, south of 27, the Beach Plum Court 9-lot subdivision (approved by the Town back in 1989) seems like a good spot to establish road-end public beach access with some parking and a path to the ocean, especially since according to County tax maps, the Town of East Hampton owns the last parcel in the cul-de-sac. Similarly, why wouldn’t the town secure some amount of road-end/road-side public parking and access to the beach somewhere on Dunes Lane, a stunning, long dirt road just west of Marlin Drive, which is a 6-lot subdivision more recently carved from pristine duneland. And finally, the end of Beaverhead Street that runs between the Ocean Colony property and a 4-lot, 10-acre subdivision being marketed for luxury development seems like another good spot for road-end parking, pedestrian access and possibly drive-on access.
These additional Napeague stretch subdivisions and the Hither Hills section of Old Montauk Highway continue to be developed aggressively with oversized structures valued now between $20 million to $42 million; these and other shoreline developments the Town approves should indeed contribute something to public beach access, just as the White Sands and Beach Hampton neighborhoods have for decades since their establishment.
And all in, as the East End chapter of Surfrider organization recommended over a decade ago, I think we need to take full inventory of all Town-owned access points to many bodies of water (not just the ocean) that "are not well known, perhaps have fallen into disuse or have been blocked by private individuals."
Second, explore if the Town can negotiate with the Village for some access at Two Mile Hollow Beach.
Parking access at the end of Town Line Road beach is split between East Hampton Town and Southampton Town residents because the road itself is the border between the two municipalities. Meanwhile, the lifeguarded Two Mile Hollow beach, currently a Village exclusive beach, is just a few hundred feet away from the boundary between East Hampton Village and Amagansett, just east of Cross Highway. So perhaps the Town could explore some partial sharing arrangement, where East Hampton residents might be allowed access in season to some portion of the spots in this near-200-car parking lot.
Not only would this alleviate at least a bit of the current constraints in Town access to lifeguarded beaches, but geographically, the location is important in that it represents more of a direct "straight shot" for Town residents who live up in Springs and Northwest. I can't say I know with confidence that this possible, and given the current dismissive mindset of Village Trustees regarding Town residents whether it's about parking in Reutershan lot or at the beach, it is likely a long shot at this point. As Village Deputy Mayor Minardi said earlier this year "If you’re a nonresident of the village...you’re all the same, whether you live in New York City or in the Town of East Hampton." However, putting it on the table and starting a dialogue about it would be a good thing to do.
Third, I think it’s time for the Town to establish a new life-guarded, comfort-stationed “bathing beach” the scale of an Indian Wells or a Two Mile Hollow.
Increasing beach access should be about expanding the number of access points rather than making existing access points more crowded. Though it's an important tool, I don’t think the ever increasing constraints on public beach access will be resolved by “striping out” a few spots here and there at road ends or on the fringes of existing beach parking lots.
It seems to me the need for a new life-guarded bathing beach in Napeague is no longer an “if.”
As I understand it, East Hampton started evaluating the idea of adding an additional "bathing beach" at least a decade ago but declined to move ahead. And as I also understand it, the Town owns the land to do it, specifically a 6.7-acre parcel that runs from 27 all the way down to the ocean beach somewhat west of Windward Shores.
Per the 2015 South Flora Preserve management document:
"In connection with the town's investigation of using South Flora as a bathing beach, the Nature Preserve Committee made a study of all ocean side parcels owned by the town in Napeague. The Nature Preserve Committee noted that a nearby 6.7 acre parcel, the Assembly of God parcel (named for the sellers; parcel 4 on the included map of Napeagure, SCTM 300-130-2-10), was likely to be more appropriate for a bathing beach if one was needed. The Nature Preserve Committee recommended that a needs study be conducted to determine the need for another bathing beach. If the answer was yes, then a feasibility study should be conducted on both South Flora (including parcels two and three) and for the Assembly of God parcel. Included in the Nature Preserve Committee report was a statement from the Trustees that they could not consider any request for a new bathing beach until the legal issues of ownership and use of the beach in that area were settled."
Well, the last sentence of this paragraph sends a shiver up the spine, given the Town's experience along Truck Beach, and we should all ask for clarity about how and why the ownership of this particular (or any other) area of beach could or might be contested.
But leaving that aside for the moment, it seems to me the need for a new bathing beach in Napeague is no longer an “if.” Let's name it “Stretch Beach” for now.
Fourth, I believe the Town needs a major rethink and reset about its zoning code and permitting protocols not just for oceanfront but for all waterfront development.
The scope and scale and concentration of structures being permitted by the Town all along all our shorelines over the last decade– ocean, bay, sound, harbor, lake and ponds – is staggering not only from an environmental, water quality and sustainability perspective, but also how it constricts public access. With the building of ever bigger, more elaborate, and expensive houses seems to come elitism, enlarged ego, and engorged sense of entitlement, as well as seemingly unlimited resources to litigate against the town.
Today's East Hampton Town Board and the Trustees should now anticipate that our current runaway development situation increases probability that more property owners might take swings at shoreline and beach privatization all around our waterways. The more the town permits oversized luxury building along our shorelines, the more likely we are to find ourselves challenged by uber elite homeowners who believe they have some basis to restrict access around their water front monoliths.
(Anecdotally, if you want to get a bit of sense of the growing exclusion mindset, just take a look at how the signage has grown over the last decade -- in number, size, positioning and threatening "tone" -- at the top of three private roads (Treasure Island Drive, Sandpiper Lane and Beach Road ) in Amagansett off of Bluff Road that lead down to pedestrian and emergency access points 4A, 5A and 6A to the ocean beach.)
With the building of ever bigger, more elaborate, and expensive houses seems to come elitism, enlarged ego, and engorged sense of entitlement, as well as seemingly unlimited resources to litigate against the town.
East Hampton Town must be proactive to ensure that an even greater amount of shoreline doesn’t get locked away down private roads, behind gates and under bushels of individual claims of shore ownership. So, I ask: why, along and near shorelines, should the town continue to issue building permits, NRSPs, dune/wetland variances or other area variances without receiving from applicants access easements and/or legally ironclad, perpetual agreements relinquishing any current or future claim of beach ownership or the taking of other measures to restrict access?
Fifth, it's time to address head on the size and intensity of what is built along and within proximity to our shorelines.
Beach access is not just about settting foot or wheels in the sand…it’s also about visual access. One of the defining elements of East Hampton Town character is an ongoing sense of being near water and being a rural, seaside community — maintaining shore and water sightlines and viewsheds are core to our “sense of place.”
Coastal access and character, as well as coastal resiliency, can only be protected properly if our Town zoning code requires it.
Surfrider states it well as they describe beach access: “Coastal views from offshore to the inland coastline and from inland areas to the ocean view should be highly-valued. The public coastal viewshed should be preserved in relation to all public viewing corridors…”
Coastal access and character, as well as coastal resiliency, can only be protected properly if our town zoning code requires it, and that requires change to our code sooner than later.
In case anyone hasn't noticed, these coastal view sheds have been severely compromised, if not completely destroyed, all over town by big houses, fences, landscaping as well as the building of decking/patio on roofs and on top of dunes, related to overdevelopment. And with expanding house size and other extensive hardscape comes terrible loss of native vegetation, displacement of ground water and polluting runoffs spilling or seeping into our water bodies.
Great care, focused concern and appropriate restraint can and should indeed be written into the code.
Just one example of coastal view shed obstruction -- this one completed a couple years ago on Marine Boulevard, Amagansett: recently developed 4000 sq foot house, with lot-filling width and extra height. Believe it or not, indeed, there are dunes, beach and an ocean on the other side of this house.
The thing about Truck Beach is it didn't just come out of nowhere....the legal conflagration didn't spontaneously combust-- the conflict was in the making for decades, well before the first court papers were filed.
What started on this beach a couple centuries ago as a productive site for commercial “haul seiners,” fishermen and baymen, and then later became a low-key destination for local resident recreation, sometimes fishing, sometimes simply enjoying time with family and friends on the beach in that traditional spot, transformed into a far more intensive usage pattern along that singular stretch as commercial net fishing waned. If court documents and other observations are accurate, recreational driving and parking of trucks on that stretch of beach really didn’t become a "very big thing" until the 1990's when Chapter 91 of the Town Code regulating beach usage was adopted and also amended authorizing the issuance of Beach Driving permits.
It seems most everyone stood by and watched the sand storm swirl and the tensions flare...What the Town and Trustees believed to be rock solid turned out to be made only of shifting sands
But while vehicle usage --driving and parking-- on that beach continued to expand, so too did the development of the four roads with four new subdivisions approved by the Town across 1981, 1982 and 1985, where acre upon acre of stunning, precious and pristine dune land and wetland were excavated as the Town issued permit after permit to build, and then rebuild, ever larger structures.
A view from 2015: the western end of the 4000-foot-stretch of what has been called "Truck Beach," from the historical access off the eastern cul-de-sac of Marine Blvd. This image captures just a slice of the intensity and density of development that continues to expand and consume our shorelines, compared with the beach usage on the other side of the dunes.. Photo courtesy of Doug Kuntz by permission.
For decades, the Town didn’t seem to predict what would happen or take any preemptive action to assure that a good balance between vehicular beach goers and property owners could be maintained, so it was inevitable conflict would ensue, as the expectations of the citizens frequenting Truck Beach and the desires of the house owners would collide head on.
This is not an indictment of our current Town Board, as many Boards of the past should have seen it coming-- those prior administrations could have anticipated, years in advance, that problems were brewing as more and more houses were built on one side of those dunes and more and more trucks rolled on the beach on the other side, and perhaps they could have been more focused on "deconfliction" before this ever wound up in the courts. But it seems most everyone stood by and watched the sand storm swirl and the tensions flare.
In their defense, the Town has said they believed and relied on the fact that the developers of these subdivisions appeared to cede ownership rights to that part of Napeague beach and acknowledged the southern boundary of the development to be just at the beach grass line. Indeed, notations to that effect and statements that "developer does not purport to hold or convey lands south" of the beach grass or map limit lines appear on the five different subdivision maps approved by the Town.
But in the NY State Supreme Court and Appeals Court opinions, those notations were found to be not legally binding, and as we learned via the ruling, the chain of ownership from the 1882 Benson deed was deemed to be unbroken, enduring and enforceable. Though the original subdivision developers waived their rights of ownership seaward from the dune crest, according to the Court's opinion, it seems that turned out to be just some scribbles on a piece of paper rather than true conveyance of ownership. What the Town and Trustees believed to be rock solid turned out to be made only of shifting sands.
Looking backward to the 1980s and 1990s, from the comfort of my rearview mirror, it seems like it was naive for the Town to think that everything would be fine as they kept approving subdivisions and issuing permits for one big house after another in these dunes and on those roads while the traditional, deeply loved and deeply local spot on that beach also transformed into ever more truck traffic and parking.
I think it is easy to chide and deride how the use of Truck Beach intensified to the point that it looked like, on its most crowded days, a parking lot full of tailgaters. And I also believe there is legitimate argument to the made that for many people, long-time locals as well as second homeowners, going to the beach is about quiet and passive enjoyment of natural beauty, and that means, in part, getting away from, not getting closer to, the sound, the smell and the sight of motor vehicles.
But I also think many of us have continued to neglect to take into account some of the context of that transition, and to understand how it emerged out of the disruption, sense of dispossession and existential trauma to a essential slice of our multi-generational local population --those whose livelihoods (and identities) are rooted in fishing in our waters -- that began with the moratorium imposed in 1985 on stripped bass commercial fishing due to corporate PCB contamination, and followed by the 1990 State ban on haulseining off our ocean beaches. That ban appeared to many as wrongly justified and motivated by outside interests of well-off sportfishers rather than well-meaning, genuine conservation initiatives.
The most recent July 28 edition the Star included an article "The Day Baymen Defied the Law" which reminds us of "long years of frustration and bitterness over the state regulations, which crippled the commercial striped bass fishery." and continues:
"The fishery was shut down in 1985, when the state accused General Electric of polluting the Hudson River, and the striped bass that spawn there, with polychlorinated biphenyls, a toxic compound.
"Striped bass were declared safe from PCB contamination five years later, and G.E., following a lengthy lawsuit, reached a settlement with the fishermen in 1993, though the cleanup of the Hudson did not begin until 2009. However, even as the striper market reopened in the early ‘90s, the State Department of Environmental Conservation moved to ban haulseining."
From here on out, not being fully aware of mounting pressure and threats to public beach access -- and not taking action to preempt problems -- can no longer be excused as simple naiveté...it's negligence.
But going forward in this day and age, seeing everything that we see, and knowing all that we know about the ongoing orgiastic state of real estate development on the East End, crystal clear should be the need and duty to be proactive about protecting beach access all along our shores as they are strip-mined by speculators, scarred beyond recognition by over-zealous, self-important architects and builders, and exploited by the uber wealthy. From here on out, not being fully aware of the very real and mounting pressure and threats to public beach access and shoreline sustainability, and not taking tactical and strategic actions and working fully and broadly to preempt problems, can no longer be excused as simple naiveté -- it's negligence.
The hard fact is East Hampton -- neither the Town government, nor our citizens (some of the latter of whom are indeed "making bank" off of the current state of overheated development and voracious over consumption) -- can't have it both ways. The Town can't continue to approve and enable this type overdevelopment along and near our shorelines and also think that self-absorbed, well-funded, and even scorched-earth challenges to public and resident beach access will not be launched repeatedly. My saying this is not a taking of sides or some kind of justification of potential plaintiffs' actions--its just a plain-eyed, realistic assessment of the situation based on current dynamics, mindsets and human nature. And I suggest it's going to get more intense as waters rise and beaches erode.
So I think we need to have an honest, thoughful conversation about whether the amount of money, as well as time and energy that would be consumed by the Truck Beach condemnation might be channeled more productively and constructively to providing and protecting beach access more broadly across the Town. If the Town takes the condemnation route at Truck Beach, on one hand, we might feel that it protects the rights of the public and that it sends a strong message to others who dare to try to privatize shoreline or restrict beach access. But while we may win that battle, I worry we still will be at risk of losing the war.
It's time we get our heads out of the sand and focus our brains on what can and should be done.