Fourteen East Hampton Town fishermen were cited for trespassing on an Amagansett beach on Sunday during an act of civil disobedience they hope will serve as a test case for beach access rights.
East Hampton Town is under a court order to bar vehicle access to the once popular spot known as Truck Beach in connection with a lawsuit that in February was decided in favor of a group of homeowners who do not want four-wheel-drive vehicles on the ocean beach. Attorney Dan Rodgers said he will represent those who were issued summonses when they return to town justice court on Oct. 27 and will argue they were allowed to be there.
"I can tell you this, the baymen and women that I represent are going to fight like hell to maintain the right to something that they've done for 300 years," Rodgers said.
Rodgers organized a similar protest in June, although no citations were issued.
The Amagansett property owners 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, upholding the decadeslong tradition. But a panel of judges in the Appellate Division overturned that ruling in February. The lawsuit appeared settled after the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, declined to hear the case last month.
Rodgers noted an easement in a deed dating back to 1882 that states access should be allowed for fishing and fishing-related purposes. Rodgers is arguing that should apply to recreational fishing as well as commercial fishing and asked East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc to declare that all residents are fishermen.
Van Scoyoc, who has previously said he is in favor of condemning the beach as a means of preserving public access, could not be reached for comment this week.
Rodgers argues that even if the beach belongs to the property owners, the trespassing charges should be dismissed on the grounds that the deed allows fishermen to be there.
The property owners disagreed that the matter could be clarified in town justice court.
"I don't think what they're doing is the way to get a resolution to any question that they may have," said Ken Silverman, president of the Dunes at Napeague Property Owners Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Silverman said the homeowners have no issue with commercial dory boat fishermen who use nets accessing the beach with permission. But the homeowners do not agree with Rodgers’ broader interpretation that all four-wheel-drive vehicles should be allowed for fishing.
"We don't want the trucks. We don't believe we have to allow the trucks," Silverman said.
Dan Lester, a commercial fisherman from Springs who said his family has used the beach since the 1800s, was among those who were issued a citation and will continue to fight the issue.
"We're going to keep traversing and using the beach as necessary," Lester said. "The beaches don't belong to anybody but the people."