Devon Lawsuit Settled: We Must Get Along About Oceans and Bays

Surfcaster at sunset
Photo: iStock

One year ago, the Devon Yacht Club filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County about oyster farming activity in Gardiners Bay. It was the strangest thing.

Devon Yacht Club sits waterfront on Gardiners Bay in Amagansett, serving as an exclusive summer beach and sailing club for members of the social set and their friends since 1908. It is almost never in the news. It does not cause trouble. In recent years, some restrictions regarding membership have been removed, but it is still basically serves that group. Summer people come out and join the Maidstone Club for golf and the Devon Yacht Club on the bay for sailing.

Why in the world would they file a lawsuit against anybody? Basically, the activities of the State would impinge on their offshore sailing course. Buoys mark it off. The course has been there for 50 years or more. Now the state is marking off a parcel of the bay as an operation of an underwater oyster farm.

The parcel would be 10 acres in size, and would sometimes be filled with floating oyster cages, which often, tied together, float just below the surface. The County marked this spot and nine others as part of the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program where outfits such as the Amagansett Oyster Company can help improve the oyster population, whose members when they grow up snuggle on the sandy bottom of the bay, a noble occupation indeed.

At the time, the general public largely considered the Devon’s lawsuit an example of noblesse oblige. Get out of the way. We go sailing here.

Indeed, it took a lot of guts for the Devon Yacht Club to file this suit. Polite attempts to get the oyster lease moved elsewhere got them nowhere. The County would not budge. And so the yacht club filed a lawsuit. They must have known it would not be popular for them to do so, and they went into it whole hog, including in the lawsuit the Suffolk County Planning Department and its director, the Town of East Hampton, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Amagansett Oyster Company, which was given this lease, and other individual leaseholders.

Last week, a settlement was announced ending this lawsuit. The County will shut down this particular lease (it hasn’t even begun, since it’s been the subject of a lawsuit.). And they will give the Amagansett Oyster Company a new lease at a new location, where it doesn’t interfere with the Devon sailboat races.

The Yacht Club says that’s fine because the other locations don’t interfere with the sailing.

As for the Amagansett Oyster Company, their president told The East Hampton Star that this settlement would have no bearing on his business. One spot was just as good as another. However, it will be a while before operations can begin anyway, because further applications and permits must be approved by the Coast Guard, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

It seems to me that Devon has done the right thing. And officials and County bureaucrats have been, for one year, ridiculous.

In the old days, if someone wanted to drop a lobster pot, they’d consult with others to see if this was a good place to do it. They wouldn’t do it where it might interfere with navigation or surfcasting or clamming areas. They might move along if a spot was already taken. Everyone would work it out with everyone else who used the bay.

What should have happened, from the very beginning, is that the County should have considered everybody else who uses the bay. But it seems in the end they took the position that they are government officials and whatever they say goes. Indeed, now, after the expenditure of all this money for lawyers, they now have pledged to consult with everybody else about where these leaseholds go. Everybody has a stake in what goes on in the bay. This is a situation where everybody has to get along.

This kind of government overreach is a hallmark of what many people think is a government gone nuts to get everything just so. It reminds me of the revolt a few years ago when the State of New York declared that they were, for the first time, instituting fishing license requirements for surfcasters.

What? It’s the ocean. Surfcasters have been down at the beach in waders trying to catch fish since the beginning of time. Catching one fish at a time this way is not, and has never been, an issue about the environment. It’s about getting your dinner. And yet, all of a sudden, the State wants everybody to get in line to buy a permit, which will cost at least enough to pay for the State to hire people to administer it. I think the initial fee was supposed to be $75. And they wanted the fishermen to line up at State offices to get them or go to a local bait-and-tackle shop to get them.

The fishermen rebelled. The owners of the bait-and-tackle shops rebelled. And nobody bought any of the permits.

Finally, the State just decided to give out the licenses for free. They’d already set this thing up and had to do something with all the licenses they’d printed. Actually, they said, they just wanted to know how many people were surfcasters. It would be for statistical purposes. States are great on statistics. The fishermen considered this offer with suspicion, but when the State went ahead with it and gave them out free, they got them. Problem solved. Or was it?

This year, I went to a New York State Park office to apply for a permit to use my 4×4 on the beaches where driving is permitted. They make sure you have a vehicle that has 4×4, that you have a rod and reel, fishing tackle and all the other gear. They actually look in your car, or at least ask if it was all there.

This year, the State 4×4 permit requires that, among all the other things, you get a New York State Saltwater Fishing License before they consider you for a 4×4 permit. And they don’t sell the surfcasting licenses right there. That’s from the NY State Department of Conservation office.

What if you just want to go surfing? Or have a picnic? Or bird watching? Or driftwood gathering? Or maybe you want to drive around without any purpose at all. Just to look around. Well, there are different prices for different locations and activities. And it depends where you are from. The 4×4 permit is $80 to residents of the state for the area I go to, and it costs $125 if you are not a county resident.

Locations include 4×4 beach, Camp Hero ($40 and $75), sport fishing ($35 and $60). For hang gliding or surfing or whatever, they don’t need the surfcasting number from the Saltwater Fishing License Registry. But if it’s for fishing, they do. Tires shall not exceed either 33 inches in diameter or 12.5 inches in width.

An office use section is filled out by the clerk after asking questions. 4-wheel drive fishing? Night fishing? Star Gazing? Regional Diving? Caumsett Fishing? What is Caumsett fishing?

At the Saltwater Fishing License Registry, some bureaucrats have actually sat around thinking of different things you might do and what they want to charge, and they’ve also come up with a bunch of questions about other personal things—height, eye color, date of birth, primary address and apartment number that do not seem relevant. They want you to give the answer to a security question. They want you to create the security question. I could go on and on.

Race and religion are not on there, but I bet they’re coming. Maybe they’ll want to know which political party you want to be identified with. They’re all coming. Finally, they don’t give out surfcasting licenses for sharks. That comes from still a third party, the Federal Government.

I might add that the beach-driving permit from the State Park Office is only good for one year, which is from January 1 to December 31, but is actually good for less than a year because you can’t buy it until January 1 and then not after April 1, and all expire on December 31.

I told a longtime friend of mine, somebody I’ve known since we were growing up out here, about the new requirements and he said he didn’t know about it. I’ll quote him exactly. But I won’t name his name.

“I don’t get any permit,” he said. “I just drive on the beach.”

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