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Clammer's lawsuit could end decades-old dispute over where Long Island Sound begins

Clam fisherman Bryan Murphy stands on his fishing

Clam fisherman Bryan Murphy stands on his fishing boat on the Long Island Sound in the vicinity of Whitewood Point off the shore of Lloyd Neck in the Town of Huntington, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

On New Year's Day 2010, Nassau County police ticketed Bryan C. Murphy for shellfishing in what authorities said was Oyster Bay and he said was Long Island Sound.

How a judge rules who is correct could end a decades-old dispute over where Long Island Sound begins -- and who controls hundreds of acres of underwater land.

"It's fertile ground for a clammer to make a living," said Murphy's lawyer, Darrin Berger of Huntington. "It's mostly deep water, so it's more difficult, but the guys that are good can make a decent living there."

Who can make a living there goes to the heart of the dispute: the town of Oyster Bay has leased the lands to shellfishing company Frank M. Flower & Sons Inc. A ruling against the town would mean those clam beds would be open to holders of state-issued licenses, rather than town-issued licenses.

After being ticketed, Murphy, 42, of Huntington, who holds a state-issued license, sued Oyster Bay and New York State in state Supreme Court, pushing them to resolve the issue. The case initially began in Suffolk County but two years ago was moved to state court in Mineola.

New York State draws the line between Rocky Point on Centre Island to Whitewood Point on Lloyd Harbor. Town of Oyster Bay officials long put the line farther north, from Rocky Point to Lloyd Point. Last month, Oyster Bay revised its claim, asserting it owned even more underwater land with the eastern boundary drawn from Oak Neck Point in Bayville.

The dispute has its roots in the colonial period when the Andros Patent of 1677 established that Oyster Bay was "bounded on ye North by ye Sound." Despite attempts in the 1950s and 1970s, the state and town have never agreed where the Sound ends and the bay begins. In 2004, the state Department of Environmental Conservation told Town Supervisor John Venditto to stop issuing tickets to clammers in the disputed area, which it said was state land.

Earlier this month, the town authorized paying $50,000 to California law firm Wendel Rosen Black and Dean LLP for help in the case, and another $85,000 is pending board approval for other expenses.

"It's in everyone's interest to know where the correct jurisdiction begins and ends," said Matthew Rozea, a town attorney.

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's office, which represents New York, declined to comment on the case, though it said in court filings the "town's proposed boundary line is incorrect and arguments it has advanced in its support are flawed."

The state has argued that a legal precedent known as the "headland to headland" rule -- one body of land to another -- should apply and would favor its boundary.

Last month, the town submitted to the court expert testimony from Scott Edmonds of the Maryland-based firm International Mapping, who said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea should apply and the boundary should run from Oak Neck Point to Lloyd Point.

The attorney general's office asked the court for time to review Edmonds' testimony. Berger, Murphy's lawyer, said United Nations conventions do not apply to disputes between states and municipalities.

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