Commercial fisherman Daniel Lester speaks outside Southampton Town Justice Court about fishing on the beach near homeowners who filed suit.  Credit: Thomas Lambui

A Southampton Town justice on Tuesday agreed to dismiss trespass charges against 14 East Hampton fishermen for driving in a protest on a contested Napeague beach last year, after a prosecutor said homeowners who lay claim to the beach declined to file trespass charges.

The decision by Justice Gary Weber in the Hampton Bays court was viewed as a victory for the fishermen and, by association, all residents of East Hampton who would like to drive on the mile-long stretch of Napeague known as Truck Beach, fishermen and their lawyer said.

“I’m going to spread the word, if you have a commercial or recreational fishing license, the beach is open,” said Daniel Lester, a commercial fishermen from Amagansett whose trespass charge was among the 14 dismissed. “Start using it again.”

His lawyer, Southampton attorney Daniel Rodgers, said the fact that none of the homeowners who have filed and won a series of legal cases stepped forward to file trespass affidavits after town police charged the fishermen with violations for trespass “can be taken as consent” to fish on the beach, by truck or other means.

“The fight’s over,” said Rodgers, pointing to a reservation, or easement, in the sale deed dating to 1882 that allowed for “fishing and fishing related activity” for East Hampton residents.

But James Catterson, a lawyer for some of the homeowners, said in an interview with Newsday that that reading of the law is incorrect, and the lower court can’t undo higher court rulings.

Amagansett property owners had sued the town and its trustees in 2009, claiming East Hampton had no right to allow the public to drive on the 4,000-linear-foot beach. A state Supreme Court judge ruled in East Hampton’s favor in 2016, but a panel of judges in the Appellate Division overturned that ruling in February. The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, declined to hear the case last month.

“No [town] Justice Court has the ability to overrule the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division or the Court of Appeals, and counsel for the fishermen should know that,” Catterson said.

Catterson said the reservation “comes down to that while there may be some rights to fish on the beach, there are no rights to drive any trucks on the beach. The Appellate Division issued an injunction against it.”

But Rodgers said the reservation is unambiguous in allowing for a range of activity related to fishing, including driving trucks to get there. He has issued cards for fishermen to carry on the beach saying they are “engaged in fishing-related activity,” with a copy of the 1882 deed language.

In addition, Rodgers said, he and supporters plan to launch the Stuart B. Vorpahl Sunday Afternoon Truck Beach Fishing Clinic on Truck Beach next spring and are encouraging all eligible town residents to attend for instruction.

The case has seen twists and turns through the court system since 2009. Most recently, it resulted in criminal contempt charges by a civil court judge hearing the case in a Riverhead court against East Hampton Town officials, including its supervisor, Peter Van Scoyoc. The town and its trustees have filed appeals of that ruling.

The case landed in Southampton Justice Court after two East Hampton judges recused themselves from the case for unexplained reasons.

Bradford Magill, acting deputy bureau chief of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, told Weber that his office and East Hampton Town police sought “unsuccessfully to obtain trespass affidavits” from residents to pursue the case but none would agree to do so. As the charges against each of the fishermen was read in court, he read a statement requesting the judge dismiss the charges. Magill declined to comment after the proceedings.

Rodgers outside the courtroom told the fishermen the beach is now “unregulated,” and free for them to conduct a vast range of fishing-related activity, including driving trucks to get there.

“There’s one way the homeowners can get any kind of conceivable relief under this reservation and that is to give it back, and that’s what we’re asking them to do — give the beach back to the town” and let the town create “meaningful” regulations for its use for fishing, Rodgers said.

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