Two Wins: Barns Can Be Built on Farmland, Locals Can Drive on Beach

Beach bird cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

If you’ve lived here for more than a half-century, it’s hard not to appreciate the laws passed, some of them from as early as 1686, that protect the land and at the same time preserve the rights of the citizenry who live here year round.

But again and again, some—in my opinion—selfish people come out here and believe anything within view of their large summer homes is fair game for revision. Views out the windows were paid for. They can’t believe that things cannot be fixed to accommodate them. They don’t care how this might affect others. And so they sue.

One such lawsuit was thrown out of State Supreme Court last week. In the summertime, residents of Southampton have gone out to picnic, fish, swim and socialize at a remote beach west of Southampton Village for as long as anyone can remember.

Laws passed in 1686 guarantee them this right to engage in these activities in this town, not only at this beach but also at any beach. Access to the beach is also guaranteed, using specific old sand roads known as Trustee Roads that exist here and there.

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When the 19th century turned into the 20th, four-wheel drive trucks and automobiles got people out there for that purpose. They still do.

The lawsuit to get this activity and these vehicles off the beach was filed several years ago by a group of people who had recently built nine private summer homes facing out to the ocean at this beach. No houses had been there before. Surely these lawsuit filers noticed this activity when they built. Now it was time for the locals to move out.

The lawsuit described the “activities” at the beach to be noxious and unsafe, a nuisance that included public urination and defecation and other things effectively denying them their rights. Allowing this to take place was the result of an illegal “taking without compensation” of their property, since these homeowners own to the high water line—Town Trustees own below that. What was in vogue when King James II created a law that went unchallenged when the Revolution came surely could not be held up in the busy world of today.

Unmentioned anywhere in the lawsuit was the fact that these people built their homes there knowing all this was going on at “their” beach. Oceanfront property was expensive. This oceanfront with the activity out front probably would be available for a lot less. But that was then. This is now. With the locals and their dreadful picnics gone, wow!

Another challenge snuffed out involved a more recent law. Passed around 1974, it allowed the county to purchase the development rights of farmland in these parts. Assessments on farmland prior to that time were based on best possible use, and the possible uses included housing developments, the value of which had become very high.

The farmers only wanted to farm. So they sold their development rights to the county for a price—often in the millions, since it was forever—and with the farmland saved were able to continue farming without having to pay the otherwise high taxes, which had already driven some farmers out of business.

The challenge to this was about something that had been left out of the original law. Shouldn’t farmers be able to build a barn or greenhouse? What about a farm stand? What about irrigation pumping stations, what about wine tasting rooms, what about spaces for special events? Ten years ago, the State of New York was moved to make those structures allowable. But now this new challenge was to the additional state law. It claimed that since the original law had been passed by a referendum, only another referendum could change it.

Who could have filed such a nit-picking claim? Only those who wanted to look at crops growing low—certainly not high enough to block the view—and certainly not buildings.

A lower court had agreed with the plaintiffs! But an Appellate Division State Court overturned this last week. And the locals cheered!

This decision, and the earlier one mentioned, are being appealed. The battles have been won, but the war remains. Caveat emptor.

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