By Rick Murphy
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What has been a simmering dispute between the Southampton Trustees and Southampton Town Board is turning into an all out war.
The town board fired the first shot Friday, ordering the trustees to cease and desist from spending any more money. Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said the town board, after an executive session, "issued a demand to the trustees. We asked them to turn over all their accounts."
The action came after a State Supreme Court Judge, Peter Meyer, on Wednesday ordered the trustees not to spend any more money and issued an injunction to that affect.
On Thursday Richard Cahn, an attorney for the trustees, filed an appeal which he maintains is in essence an "automatic stay" on Meyer's ruling and allows the trustees to conduct its financial business as usual. However the Village of West Hampton Dunes presented documentation to the town that contradicts Cahn's stance.
The trustees have yet to announce if the body will comply with the town's demand but insiders are guessing the trustees will not, opening the door to further litigation.
The trustees have complained in recent years that the town's unwavering support has been diluted and that a spirit of mistrust was allowed to fester. Town officials have said privately that the trustees are a stubborn lot, entrenched in their ways, and unwilling to listen to common sense.
West Hampton Dunes Mayor Gary Vegliante, several citizens, and the village sued more than two years ago accusing the trustees of misappropriating public funds. That action was in response to a much older case that still lingers: The trustees sued four waterfront property owners including Vegliante to stop them from claiming ownership of a sand flat that accreted behind their homes in the 1990s. In November 2010, the residents — Vegliante, Michael Craig, Harvey Gessin and Laura Fabrizio — and the incorporated Village of West Hampton Dunes sued the trustees, questioning whether they even have authority within village boundaries.
In essence, the entire theory that the trustees were given power in colonial times via the Dongan Patent has been called into question. Eric Shultz, the president of the trustees, called Meyer's court decisions "all over the map. We have one person making a decision that affects 374 years of government," Shultz said.
Other litigation filed by the Dunes questioning the trustees' use of funds was clearly a ploy to muddy the waters, Shultz charged. The real issue was basically a "land grab" on the part of Vegliante and the other plaintiffs, he said. "All these side suits were enacted to prevent us from seeing the original suit through. Millions of dollars worth of trustees' land is in jeopardy."
Vegliante and other litigants grabbed a portion of bay bottom adjacent to their properties when a storm moved sand into the area, settling above sea level. The litigants have since moved to subdivide and sell it.
Veglainte did not return a phone call by press time.
Shultz said the trustees handle their finances by the books. "We are audited every year by the town. No one has said anything about anything up to this point. We rely on them." Shultz said the state comptroller had some minor criticisms but acknowledged via e-mail that the trustees' "didn't have an obligation to comply." The important thing, he added, is "all the funds are in place." The judge, he reiterated, "is hanging his hat on nonsense."
Meanwhile, the more practical concern is how the town will handle the financial chores th trustees traditionally do. "It would be the practical equivalent of adding another department and its financing. We have about 22," said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.
"The decision and processing would follow standard procedure for disbursement of funds according to standard municipal finance law, as well as our codified or otherwise SHT policy and procedures," she added.
New York Governor Thomas Dongan issued the royal patent in 1686 giving the trustees a permanent easement over many of the town's beaches and waterways. The tenets eventually written into state law have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. If Meyer's ruling stands, none of the incorporated villages in the town will answer to the trustees, which could open the door to a rash of bulkheads, docks, and the privatization of beaches currently regulated by the trustees.