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Oyster Bay shellfishing area belongs to New York State, judge rules

Clam fisherman Bryan Murphy sits on his boat

Clam fisherman Bryan Murphy sits on his boat on the Long Island Sound near Whitewood Point off Lloyd Neck in Huntington on Sept. 20, 2014. Murphy sued Oyster Bay over where the dividing line between Long Island Sound and Oyster Bay is. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

A state judge on Tuesday ruled that underwater land claimed by Oyster Bay actually belongs to New York State, in a decision that will affect who can harvest clams in the area.

State Supreme Court Judge Stephen Bucaria granted summary judgment to New York State, ruling that Long Island Sound is bounded by an imaginary line running east from Rocky Point in Oyster Bay to Lloyd Point in Huntington. The town had claimed that Oyster Bay extended farther north.

The decision means a large area of underwater land will fall under state rules for shellfishing rather than more restrictive town rules, said attorney Darrin Berger of Huntington, who represents Bryan C. Murphy, who sued after he was repeatedly ticketed for alleged illegal shellfishing.

The state was named in the Huntington man’s suit but sided with the plaintiff.

The ruling “allows those with state of New York licenses to shellfish in that area, which was previously off-limits to them,” Berger said.

Oyster Bay chief deputy town attorney Frank Scalera said in a statement that the town is reviewing options for an appeal.

“The court should not have taken away land which has been owned and nurtured by the town and its residents since 1653,” Scalera said.

The argument between the town and the state over where the bay ends and where the sound begins has roots in the colonial period, when the Andros Patent of 1677 established that Oyster Bay was bounded on the north by the Sound.

Bucaria ruled that since the patent did not expressly define the boundary, it fell on the state to make the determination — and the burden of any challenge fell to the town. Bucaria rejected the town’s argument that international standards should apply because the town had a sovereign interest in the waters and had existed before the state and the federal government.

“The sovereignty of the Crown has been replaced by the sovereignty of New York State,” Bucaria wrote. “While the town of Oyster Bay is older than New York, it does not stand on equal footing with the state . . . as an entity it is subordinate.”

Oyster Bay officials twice ticketed Murphy in 2010 for shellfishing without a town license in the disputed underwater lands. Murphy, who had a state license, sued on grounds that the town had no jurisdiction on state land.

The town board has approved more than $200,000 in legal fees to the Oakland, California, firm Wendel Rosen Black and Dean LLP for expert counsel in the case since 2014, according to town resolutions.

It’s not clear how the ruling will impact the Frank M. Flower & Co. shellfishing company of Oyster Bay, which has leased from the town some of the underwater land affected by the ruling.

Oyster Bay attorney James Cammarata, who represents the shellfishing company, said he was reviewing the decision.

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