What started as a trip to a Belle Terre beach by college students eventually took the tiny North Shore village — and James J. von Oiste — to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Von Oiste was Belle Terre's village attorney in 1974 when the high court ruled on the village's "anti-grouper law," which barred more than two unrelated people from living together. The court upheld the ordinance, a landmark decision that protected countless similar municipal zoning laws around the country.
The case was a career highlight for von Oiste, a Korean War veteran who was remembered as a respected small-town attorney and trusted adviser to Belle Terre officials. He served for more than three decades as a village judge and 27 years as village attorney before retiring in 2006.
Von Oiste died Feb. 9 at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson from complications of pneumonia, said his wife, Aida von Oiste. He was 88.
"He was a very calm person, a very respected person in the community," said former mayor Ted Lucki, "He was known for giving sound advice — especially to the crazy mayors.”
Von Oiste was born on March 7, 1930, grew up in Brooklyn and in 1948 enlisted in the Marines. He shipped out to Korea and fought in the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. The 17-day battle claimed thousands of casualties, including von Oiste, who was injured when he held up his right hand to block a bullet. The injury earned him a Purple Heart and left him with limited use of his writing hand, his widow said.
“If he hadn’t put his hand up, he would have been dead,” she said.
He received his bachelor's and law degrees from St. John's University — and modeled on the side to make extra income, his family said.
Von Oiste and his family, including his first wife, Gloria, and their four children, moved to Long Island in 1965, eventually settling in Belle Terre. Gloria died in 1971 from cancer. He served on the board of Mather hospital and worked with two partners to build the Sylvan Gardens apartments in Miller Place and Port Jefferson Station.
The dispute that led to the Supreme Court decision began in 1972 when Belle Terre officials said the students were not entitled to beach permits because they were not village residents. The students and their lawyers sued the village, arguing that the village code violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees "equal protection of the laws."
In a 1974 Newsday article, von Oiste said the case turned on "the fundamental right of municipalities to enact ordinances they deem in their best interests."
The Supreme Court voted 7-2 in the village's favor in the case, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas said the village code protected areas where "family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people."
Aida von Oiste, a Smithtown lawyer, said she first heard of her future husband when she read about the Supreme Court case as a law school student. Years later, they met when both were in Suffolk County District Court in Hauppauge. By then, von Oiste was a widower. They married in 1988 and raised a blended family of six children.
“We started talking and that’s when I realized who he was, this guy I read about in law school. I always said, I want to meet that guy,” Aida von Oiste said. “I was impressed that he had done so much. He was a poor boy who had come from nowhere. He had accomplished so much and was raising four kids and he was building apartments. He was all over the place.”
Besides his wife, von Oiste is survived by his daughters, Gloria von Oiste, of Rye, and Vanessa Rognlien of Sonoma, California; sons, Douglas von Oiste, of Rye, James von Oiste Jr., of Belle Terre, and William Glamore of Sydney; and 13 grandchildren. A daughter, Carolyn, predeceased him.
A funeral Mass was offered on Feb. 12 at Infant Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Port Jefferson. Burial with military honors followed at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Port Jefferson.