A decades-long tradition of nude sunbathing on Fire Island beaches is coming to an end this summer: Fire Island National Seashore authorities have announced plans to enforce long-standing laws banning the practice.
The surging popularity of Lighthouse Beach in particular has led to increased complaints and observations of assault, sex, masturbation and prostitution, said Fire Island chief ranger Lena Koschmann. On some summer days, as many as 4,000 people descend on the narrow strip of land east of Robert Moses State Park Field 5, in the shadow of famed Fire Island Lighthouse.
"We've been struggling to make it work because Fire Island has a history of that type of use and people have been coming there for years," Koschmann said. "The more we talked about it and researched it, the more we realized that that use wasn't compatible with an area like Lighthouse Beach."
The beach's proximity to the lighthouse generated complaints from tourists about public nudity, which now would be seen more frequently because the beach's dunes, decimated by superstorm Sandy, no longer obscure sightlines, she said.
Since the beach has no lifeguards, bathrooms or trash cans, Koschmann said thousands of nude sunbathers pose a public health risk in an area that wasn't meant to be heavily used.
"There has been a huge change in the demographic and the types of activities happening there in the last 10 or 15 years," she said. "Now when you go out there it's a party atmosphere. There's DJs and music, and people partying and drinking."
Koschmann also said some social media sites carry invitations to meet for public sex on the beach.
The fact that public nudity is illegal in New York was another compelling reason to change the policy, since FINS maintains joint jurisdiction with the state, she said. The ban also will be enforced at four other Fire Island beaches where nude sunbathing is known to take place -- including the tract of land in front of Sailors Haven, from Point O' Woods to Cherry Grove.
Koschmann recommended the change in policy to National Seashore Superintendent Christopher Soller, who approved and announced it in an annual release outlining use restrictions at the national park. Rangers will begin by "educating" nude bathers, Koschmann said, and progress to giving tickets. But that is difficult, she said, since many nude sunbathers do not carry identification.
Toplessness, she said, "is tricky. The law that's on the books still says a woman has to have her breasts covered. That being said, there is some case law that has led to a different type of enforcement in that area. . . . We're not going to be hammering on toplessness."
Local and national nudist recreation groups decried the change in policy, which they say eliminates their only option for public nude bathing on Long Island.
"I'm pretty disappointed," said Felicity Jones, co-founder of Young Naturists and Nudists America, a New York City-based group. "It was the best beach we had for New Yorkers, and it's not easy to be a nudist in New York."
Jones, who asked to be identified only by her pen name, said her group now would probably spend most of the summer at New Jersey's Gunnison Beach.
Long Island Travasuns, a nudist-naturist group started in 1978, is hoping it can meet FINS halfway.
The group's president, who asked to be identified only as Dan, said he is "deeply saddened and extremely disappointed" by the change, but his members "hope to reach an understanding that is acceptable to everyone involved."
Koschmann said the decision is final and will be enforced. Violators could face 6 months in jail and up to $5,000 in fines.
"One of the key decision-makers for us is we've really tried. A lot of people say you should do a better job of enforcing laws down there," she said. "We only have six field rangers on staff, and they're responsible for 32 miles of beach. And they're spending between 75 and 100 percent of a summer day on that one stretch of beach."