West Hampton Dunes sues state over right to build on barrier island

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West Hampton Dunes, a tiny village on a barrier island, has sued New York State as residents seek to build and renovate waterfront homes under a court settlement reached 20 years ago.

Village officials said the 1994 agreement granted residents the right to build along Moriches Bay for 30 years without having to apply for state Department of Environmental Conservation permits for construction near tidal wetlands.

The DEC determined that right existed under a special, temporary permit that expired in 2009. Joseph Martens, the agency's commissioner, on April 28 notified the village he would not renew the permit.

The village on May 28 filed a federal lawsuit in Central Islip against the DEC, the state and others, claiming the denial violates the settlement terms.

West Hampton Dunes incorporated in 1993 amid the legal battle between residents and Suffolk County, the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over devastation from a series of storms that tore a mile-wide breach in the island and destroyed 190 homes.

Residents blamed the destruction on jetties the county, state and corps built to the east, which they said starved their community of sand and exacerbated the storms' damage.

The settlement was reached after a 10-year legal battle initiated by residents. After five years of working out the details, the DEC in 1999 granted property owners a 10-year permit to build along the bay without having to apply to the DEC. Rebuilt homes had to adhere largely to their original footprints. New construction had to comply with rules for building near tidal wetlands.

"The court order is our lifeblood," said Mayor Gary Vegliante, the only mayor in the village's history. "We are never going to let anybody interfere with that or change it."

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said the agency was "disappointed that the village chose to litigate."

Vegliante said nearly all of the 149 lots along the bay have undergone construction under the 1999 permit, and the DEC never found a violation.

The village sought a renewal in 2009, and the DEC issued one in 2010 with a five-year duration and altered terms, such as designating the entire village as a habitat for the piping plover, an endangered bird. The village objected, and the continued legal dispute culminated in the DEC's April denial.

The DEC argued that the permit was meant to be temporary, covering an initial round of construction and repairs following the storms.

Residents can still apply for normal DEC permits to build along the bay. Vegliante said the DEC has been cooperative in granting them over the past several years.

West Hampton Dunes now consists of about 300 homes on the narrow spit of land separating the bay and the Atlantic Ocean at the western edge of Southampton Town. It is home to 55 year-round residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but its population balloons in the summer.

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