Dan Rattiner's Stories

A Great Pleasure: Local Residents’ Right to Drive the Beaches Under Attack

Driving on the long stretches of empty beaches in the Hamptons is one of the great joys in this community. It is a pleasure for fishermen, bird watchers, surfers, hang-gliders, family picnickers, lovers, kayakers and beachcombers.

Typically, one goes on to such a beach from a paved road end or trustee road through the dunes. Local residents have had the right to do that since 1686, when the Dongan Patent was passed. There are about 50 miles of windswept beach in East Hampton, and about 80 miles of windswept beach in Southampton.

One does not drive where there are crowds of people at designated beaches served by lifeguards. One does not travel on the beach at speeds greater than five miles an hour. One travels with jacks, a water jug, shovels, tow ropes and flares.

Many beach drivers double as garbage pickup volunteers. You would be surprised what washes ashore on the beaches.

I have been driving the beaches since my parents first moved here in 1956. I was 16 years old. My first beach vehicle was a maroon 1951 Jeep station wagon with WARN Hubs. To get into four wheel drive—you cannot drive on the beach without it—you had to get out of the car and twist the levers located in the center of all four hubcaps to change into that gear.

Over the years I have explored all over on the beaches. My most astonishing experience came in the late 1990s on the beach at the cut between the ocean and Sagg Pond one sunny Tuesday afternoon about 5 p.m. A fog rolled in, the sky darkened, a sudden squall whipped the seas up and high winds whipped water out of the pond and created rows of choppy whitecaps on it—heading gently toward the ocean, where they spilled down into the sea. This phenomenon lasted 15 minutes. The fog lifted. A rainbow followed. It doesn’t get much better than that.

There is a movement afoot to ban beach driving altogether in the Town of East Hampton. What a mistake this would be. There are all sorts of activities that go on at the beach every day. In crowded beach areas—where drivers obviously do not go—you can make a great case for banning just about anything. People die swimming too far out. They get bitten by a Man o’ War or other jellyfish. They have encounters with sharks. They build bonfires in the evening and get drunk. They get bitten by dogs. And they get bitten or otherwise hurt by crabs, by broken glass, by harbor seals who come ashore briefly to sun and are nasty to anyone trying to pet them. They are annoyed by angry birds, by the disgusting excrement from passing seagulls, by too much sun, mosquitoes, black flies and errant Frisbees.

The town has rules and regulations about some of these activities. But everything has a place and a time. I have never before heard of anybody wanting to ban one of these activities, until now.

The possibility of banning beach driving has come up in a trial just concluded involving the desire of some people—not people on the beach, but people who look at the beach from the windows of their houses in remote areas and don’t want to see beach driving.

The case underway—a decision is expected in September—involves a 4,000-foot stretch of beach in Napeague used by the public for beach driving, picnicking, swimming and fishing. As the nearest parking area is a mile away, it is only accessible by beach vehicle.

A few people, with oceanfront homes in this 4,000-foot stretch, have sued. And they have good lawyers. They cite safety and sanitary issues. They say there was a discrepancy in the transfer of a deed from one party to another a hundred years ago regarding who owns what rights on that beach. (The value of their property will soar if they win and get an essentially private mile-long beach. This is about money, it seems to me.)

The lawyers describe the danger posed by a moving motor vehicle that might hit a human on the beach. I recall that this happened once. In 1966, the poet Frank O’Hara was run over by a beach vehicle and killed while out on the beach at night. That was on Fire Island. There has been nothing since. You are safer from motor vehicles on the beach than in your own driveway in the Hamptons.

The plaintiffs presented a video. It was filmed on July 4 weekend in 2014, when the beach was crowded with vehicles. It is 25 minutes long. It showed crowds of picnickers and beach vehicles driving along, and lined up along one stretch of the beach in a long line facing the ocean, having a good time. A dog was shown urinating. Two humans were shown urinating. Yes, they do that. Also urinating on the beach (though not in the video) are all sorts of creatures. Harbor seals urinate. Fish urinate. These creatures also eat one another. I wasn’t in the courtroom, but I have little doubt that this video was presented in a way to make the judge think it was like this every day.

I recall some years ago when the Mayor of West Hampton Dunes said he would bring in red foxes to eat the piping plovers if the environmental people came to “protect” the plovers from humans. You sometimes see red foxes in rural areas here. There are also osprey with five-foot wingspans who can swoop down and make off with small mammals. East Hampton used to hold fireworks on the beach on the Fourth of July. No more. They scared the piping plover babies who were only recently able to hop or fly out of their nearby nests. I bow to Politically Correct Thinking.

The reason the idea of banning beach driving has come up is because if the Town of East Hampton loses this case, they have announced they intend to acquire this 4,000 foot stretch of beach by eminent domain, thus allowing for the continuation of beach driving and other behaviors there anyway. Objections are raised. It will cost millions. Is this how we want to spend taxpayers’ money?

Fact is, the money for saving open space for public use does not come from the local residents. It comes from the 2% tax on real estate transactions in excess of $250,000 on unimproved land. It is rich people’s money and the tax raised with it over the years—the tax began around 1995—just passed $1 billion. We can’t find enough threatened open space to spend it on.

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