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Disputes over vehicles on East Hampton beach move toward court trials

East End officials and beach lovers are closely watching a pair of court cases moving closer to trial over the issue of vehicles on a beach in East Hampton Town.

Town trustees are fighting two lawsuits by a coalition of homeowners and a motel owner who claim the trustees illegally allow hundreds of vehicles to congregate on 4,200 feet of ocean beach in Napeague, the strip of land between Amagansett and Montauk.

The lawsuits pertain not only to town regulations but also to the complex issue of public beach ownership on the East End. The trustees say they retain some rights on behalf of the public and can legally issue permits for residents to drive on the Napeague beach.

Nearby homeowners challenge the trustees' view, saying that stretch of beach was sold by the town in 1882 to Arthur Benson, the developer of the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn, and that a deed to the beach allows fishermen to land boats and spread nets there but doesn't allow trucks or SUVs.

Decisions earlier this month by New York State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo rejected the trustees' request for summary judgments. No trial date has been set.

The Napeague beach is beloved by year-round residents seeking refuge from the Hamptons summer crowds. Nearby homeowners say visitors drive over beach grass, light bonfires, set off fireworks and leave trash behind. They also complain of noise from truck engines.

Anthony Pasca, the Riverhead-based attorney for the property owners, said they don't want to kick the public off the beach, but want to halt the use of vehicles. "You have rows and rows of cars and trucks that are parked on this beach on the weekend in the summer, people essentially tailgating on the beach," he said.

The town trustees and their attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

East Hampton, Southampton and Southold are the only towns in New York State with trustees, the East End's original governing bodies dating to the 17th century. The trustees hold regulatory powers over beaches and waterways separate from town boards.

Eric Shultz, president of the Southampton trustees, said he is watching the East Hampton case closely for signs it could carry legal implications for other towns. "Anything that's trustee-related has the potential to affect all of us," he said.

Those upset about the prospect of losing vehicle access to the beach formed Citizens for Access Rights in 2010. Tim Taylor, president of the group, said nearby parking is sparse so the ability to drive on the beach is necessary. He said homeowners' complaints are exaggerated.

"There's absolutely no garbage problem from the people using the beach during the day," he said. "I would contend there's more garbage from the homeowners going down and having bonfires."

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