ALBANY - Robert Becker built a dock at his Oak Beach cottage in the mid-1960s with no reason to doubt it was on his property. But it wasn't that simple.
After a long legal fight, New York's highest court ruled Tuesday that it was Becker's -- but not until it sorted through a small surveying error, a misplaced jetty, decades of ignorant bliss, the discovery of the mistake, a game-changing house sale, an eviction from the pier and Becker's death.
The state Court of Appeals determined that the dock doesn't belong to neighbor Owen Murtagh, even though it rests on his land. It belongs to Becker's children because of an obscure, centuries-old, common-law principle called "adverse possession."
"I'm sure they will be elated," said Philip Pierce, attorney for the Becker family. "It's been a long journey."
"It was just a very bitter dispute for some time," said Daniel Cahn, Murtagh's lawyer, "and it was, unfortunately, people fighting over a strip of land just a few feet wide."
The legal battle over the disputed dock began in 1963. According to the Court of Appeals:
Beachfront lot owners in Oak Beach, at the town of Babylon's behest and at their own expense, had wooden jetties constructed to prevent erosion. The jetties were supposed to be built on the lot boundary lines.
Becker, who was a member of the New York Stock Exchange for more than 30 years, built a four-foot dock and an extension to an existing boardwalk. Over the next two decades, Becker painted, repaired and maintained the dock and boardwalk. He allowed Nancie Gordon, his next-door neighbor, and several other families to use the wharf.
Christopher O'Hara, one of the neighbors, said in an interview that his family began going to the beach in the 1920s and recalled a halcyon past when "everybody shared and everybody used everything."
In 1984, Gordon had her property surveyed -- and discovered that the jetties had been misaligned by five feet, meaning the dock was on her property.
"I showed the survey to Mr. Becker, and he and I had a good laugh about it," Gordon said years later in an affidavit. Everyone continued to use the property as before.
In 2004, Gordon sold her house to Murtagh, director of two Long Island medical supply companies. Soon after, Murtagh told the Beckers they were no longer permitted to use the dock, boardwalk and beach. And that went for the neighbors, too.
In 2005, Becker filed suit against Murtagh, citing the principle of "adverse possession." He claimed that by openly and exclusively using the property for more than 10 years -- without dispute -- he had effectively acquired it. The O'Haras and another neighbor who had used the pier joined Becker in the lawsuit.
As the case dragged on, Murtagh dismantled the boardwalk and built a motorized boat lift on the dock. Although Murtagh secured town and state permits to build the lift, Cahn said, Becker reacted by cutting his neighbor's water supply.
"He cut water supply to my client -- so there were some nasty, not-so-pleasant exchanges for a while," Cahn said.
A trial court in Suffolk County ruled for Becker in 2006; the 76-year-old died in 2007 in Englewood, Fla., where he had retired, but the case continued.
A midlevel court ruled for Murtagh. But the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling in a 7-0 decision.
"In conclusion, the evidence that Mr. Becker had possessed, used and controlled the disputed land -- for the 21 years prior to and including 1984 -- is sufficient to establish title by adverse possession," Judge Theodore T. Jones wrote for the court.
However, the court didn't extend access rights to the neighbors because it said they failed to file a timely appeal, which Cahn called a partial victory.
Even with a victory, everyone has lost something, O'Hara said.
"Do you really win?" O'Hara said. "This was a community before. People were extremely cordial. People didn't act possessive of their property. They shared."
Reached Tuesday, Murtagh, before deferring questions to his lawyer, said: "Of course I'll still go out there. Why wouldn't I?"
With Nicholas Spangler