There's an old saying in the city, "you didn't buy the block." It was called upon when one neighbor complained about another, forgetting that we each have a right to enjoy our property. When bounds are crossed problems arise.
Trying to stop the public from over-running our precious beaches has been in the fore for over two decades now, as more and more people move to the East End and, understandably, want to enjoy the public beaches.
When their dogs stink up the place, or attack other dogs, that's a problem. When trucks barrel up and down with little regard for sunbathers or protected areas, that's a problem.
Surfers and bathers don't gel together; neither do fishermen and swimmers. The whole process of sharing the beach is about cooperation and respect.
Two decades ago what was booked as a grassroots organization, the Beach Defense League if memory serves, surfaced in East Hampton. Its goal was to stop people from using the beach across a long swath of East Hampton Village. Though it claimed to have hundreds of members, in reality a handful of oceanfront property owners fronted the group. Candidates running for East Hampton Board of Trustees were promised thousands of dollars in donations if they supported the group. An article in The East Hampton Star (written by the editor of this newspaper) days before the election revealed where the money was coming, and how the sinister effort to buy the beach was deliberately hidden from the public – in many cases large donations made to the group were under employees' names, underlings of the wealthy property owners that included William Simon and Calvin Klein.
About 95 percent of the money was donated by beachfront property owners or individuals traced to them. The favored candidates were soundly defeated and the effort to make the beach the private backyard of the well to do died.
There have been many similar efforts over the years, the latest in Napeague. In this case, property owners, that include motels/condo buildings and individual residences, claim they legally own the beach. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that on that stretch vehicular traffic is allowed year-round. It must be an annoyance for guests to have to keep one eye open for trucks when enjoying a day on the beach -- we get that.
The issue runs far deeper, however. The beaches and waterways are for the people. It's like marriage -- for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. We can put leashes on the dogs, stickers on the trucks, and designate certain areas for the surfers -- but we must never take away the right of every citizen to go to the beach. In this case, it's a family tradition, probably predating many of the structures whose owners now claim to own the beach.
We don't know if the stretch in question is still legally owned by the Town Trustees or not -- that will be decided in court. And we acknowledge there may be a legitimate claim here. The problem is the greater good -- entities have been chipping away at the authority of the trustees for years, and each erosion encourages another effort.
We think the Town of East Hampton – that being the town board -- needs to aggressively assert its rights. No scenario should exist that allows waterfront property owners to wrest away the beach in front of them from the rightful owners, the people. But a few yahoos in trucks shouldn't ruin the day for people who just want to enjoy the sun, either. Clearly, enforcement is an issue. We trust the town police, who are thankfully now in charge, can smooth things over on the beach with frequent patrols.
The trustees must also be pro-active. It's easy to draw the line in the sand and say fight, but its taxpayers' money they are raising the ante with. Worse, a defeat in court sets a dangerous precedent.
The property owners' idea of a compromise seems to be: keep the trucks off the beach during the summer. That will never happen, especially in an election year -- and make no mistake, those who are trying to turn this into a campaign issue are the real villains here.
Property owners have to understand that even if they spend a fortune on legal fees and prevail in court that the town could trump them by condemning the beaches in front of them. More likely, the title to the beaches long ago passed to the people.
That is not to say we don't appreciate the plight of the property owners, because we do. But they didn't buy a "private beach" as one establishment involved in the litigation proclaims on its website. They bought beachfront property, yes. But it sits on a public beach, regardless of what some ancient deed might state. It's our beach. And theirs, too. Let's get the hopped up punks in their monster trucks out of the equation, get a police presence on the beach during July and August, and try and find a workable solution so we can live together as neighbors and friends.