Legal skirmishes continue over Southampton Town trustee duties

Southampton Town Hall is shown. Southampton Town Hall is shown. Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

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The Southampton Town trustees are back in business, at least for the time being.

Created as the town's first governing body by a royal patent in 1686, the trustees evolved over the centuries as an independently elected agency with the power to regulate the use of town beaches, waterways, docks and the harvesting of shellfish.

Last week, a State Supreme Court decision stripped the trustees of the ability to regulate beaches inside West Hampton Dunes or any other incorporated village within Southampton Town.

Another decision by the same court took away their authority to spend public funds.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions going back a decade between the trustees and the Village of West Hampton Dunes over the question of who regulates beaches inside the village, and whether new beachfront in the village created by a storm falls under town trustee control.

The two decisions last week effectively ended the trustees' ability to work within Southampton Town's incorporated villages, trustees President Eric Schultz conceded.

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However, last Thursday, Richard Cahn, attorney for the trustees, filed an appeal of the decisions handed up by State Supreme Court Justice Peter Meyer.

Cahn said the appeal created an automatic stay of the court's injunction, which again allowed the trustees to spend public funds and resume work as a regulatory body.

"I sent out a courtesy email to the town attorney and the plaintiff's attorney [West Hampton Dunes] so they would have actual knowledge that any interference by the town or anyone else with the trustees' financial affairs would be a violation of the law," said Cahn.

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On Friday, the Southampton Town Board held a special meeting to authorize Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato to issue a "demand letter" to the trustees, requiring them to turn over their bank accounts and other financial assets to the town's control. She said she could not predict how long it would take to resolve the issue.

For his part, Schultz said, "It's a legal issue. This will come down to the need for the State Legislature to clear this up once and for all . . . to reaffirm the duties of the trustees."

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