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Ownership of town park is questioned

Nestled among the grasses and sand dunes that make up the Beach Plum Preserve in Napeague is a legal conundrum of the first order -- a problem so puzzling it could be the subject of a law school class.

That, at least, was the opinion of a lawyer who recently had to explain why a town preserve that is not owned by the town could not be taken off a list of town properties, especially when there was no one else who could legally get possession of the land.

East Hampton Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, faced with the same issue at a public hearing last week, took a simpler approach. Who, he asked, put the matter on the town board agenda in the first place, and why?

"I'm totally confused. I don't know how it got here," said the usually unflappable supervisor. "I'm not faulting anybody. I'm just trying to explain my blank stare."

The land, three parcels totaling nearly 16 acres, is shaped like the letter C and wraps around a small subdivision in Napeague called Beach Plum Court. Few even try to walk on it because there is no public parking nearby.

The property -- actually a scenic easement where nothing can be built -- was required to be preserved before the subdivision was approved. It has been on the town's Nature Preserve Register for a decade.

But someone in the town's land management office discovered a discrepancy earlier this year when comparing the properties on the register with a list of properties owned by the town.

That resulted in a draft resolution to remove the three "erroneously included" parcels from the register.

One town board member approved putting the resolution up for a public hearing, and it sat on the agenda until Thursday night, when people started lining up to talk about how bad it would be to abandon environmentally sensitive preserved land.

David Buda, of Springs, a frequent critic of the town board, pointed out that while the town might not have clear title, it did not mean the town did not own the property.

Richard E. Whalen, a former deputy town attorney and expert in real estate law, suggested the board clarify the title, possibly by getting anyone with a claim to the land to abandon it.

After the parade of speakers, the town board closed its hearing. "This will require some discussion at a work session," Wilkinson said.

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