Who Owns the Sand? Beach Squabbles in East Hampton

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/2011 Getty Images

You might have to watch where you put your terrycloth beach towel this summer in the Hamptons lest you trespass on some rich guy’s personal beach.  The once unthinkable is happening — homeowners are trying to privatize the sand.  Last month a Suffolk County Supreme Court decision concurred with gallery owner Floyd Macklowe and his wife Barbara’s contention that 22,000 square feet of the newly created Georgica Beach in front of their $26 million East Hampton home is an extension of their private property.  And they’re not the only ones in court.

Property lines on oceanfront homes on the East End have long been a moving target, thanks to Mother Nature. Because the beach and dunes are always changing — often imperceptibly over time, sometimes dramatically after a storm — it’s difficult to say where private property ends and public beach begins.  Some East Hampton beachfront property lines are defined by the high-water mark. Others, like the Macklowes’ property, begin at the “southernmost line of beach grass on the dunes,” according to a deed that dates back to 1900. Unlike the neighboring plots, their property has grown larger instead of eroding as their dunes moved seaward, thanks to sand deposited in front of their house by the littoral drift of a nearby revetment built in 1977. 

The Macklowes sued the Town Trustees, claiming that since the beach-grass line moved, so did their property, and Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan agreed that a property line can, in fact, be “ambulatory,” adding millions of dollars to the value of the Macklowes’ spread.  Although the decision doesn’t set a legal precedent, it’s a “leading” opinion and gives the Town Trustees and East Hampton residents a shiver.

The Macklowes have smartly abandoned any claim to restrict public access on the newly won sand, but not all of their neighbors are so gracious. Just down Georgica beach, philanthropist Mollie Zweig had a contractor plant 24 steel poles in the sand to erect a fence that would define a section of the beach where Hurricane Irene blew away a 3,000 square foot dune behind her house. Zweig ignored a stop-work order from the Town of East Hampton and a violation from the Department of Environmental Conservation, and was given an invitation to appear in court. When the fence was vandalized — some pointed the finger at infuriated surfers — Zweig installed a security camera. The poles themselves were washed away with the next storm.

Zweig insists that she just wanted to mark off the area where she intended to replace the missing dune, a costly project involving 5,000 cubic yards of sand at a cost of $150,000. But Zweig has a real claim, say experts; losing property to erosion sometimes legally changes the property line, but with “evulsion,” caused by a catastrophic event like a hurricane, the property rights still persist.   

The most contentious of the lawsuits centers on a beach in Amagansett, and it goes to the heart of a locals versus summer people struggle that’s been endemic to East Hampton since it became a resort.  Once known as “Big House Beach” because of the seven spacious mansions that overlook it,  it’s now known as “Truck Beach”— the only unrestricted beach in East Hampton where you can still drive a four-wheel vehicle, day and night.  During the summer there are often 200 vehicles tailgating along the beach. Driving on the sand, surfcasting, beach fires, and off-leash dogs have been part of local culture for generations. 

But nobody who can afford to spend $15 million for an oceanfront home in the Hamptons wants to live on something called Truck Beach, and homeowners claim the value of their homes, let alone their peace of mind, is being severely damaged. Forming an organization called the Seaview Amagansett Residential Association, along with a time-share condominium further up the beach, the homeowners sued the Town of East Hampton, the Town Board, and the Town Trustees, claiming ownership of 4,000 feet of the beach in front of their homes based on a deed from 1887. Back then the Trustees, hard up for cash, sold 1,000 acres of East Hampton, including the Nappeague beachfront that is now Truck Beach, to a real estate developer. For most of the last 125 years it’s been generally agreed that the Trustees had no right to sell town land and the 1887 deed was worthless — until this lawsuit, which had already cost the Trustees $40,000 to defend.  

The lawsuit provoked a Bonacker Spring. Using Facebook as a rallying point, young locals who grew up on the beach created a grassroots organization called CfAR (Citizens for Access Rights), that now has more than 1,000 members. If the homeowners win in court, as a last-ditch effort CfAR is demanding that the Town of East Hampton use the power of condemnation and take over the beach by right of eminent domain and turn it into a public park — and a Truck Beach purgatory for homeowners.