Dan Rattiner's Stories

Peters Pond Gone: Sagaponack Pond Is Slurped Up by the Ocean

Dan explores the long history and current state of this Sagaponack spot.

Peters Pond Lane is a rutted dirt road that runs south for a quarter-mile from Daniels Lane in Sagaponack down to a dead end at a break in the ocean dunes a hundred yards away. It is owned by the Town, but they don’t take good care of it. People can park along its shoulder and go to the beach there even though there are old rusty signs saying you can’t do that without a permit. Enforcement is lax or nonexistent.

It is strange to see such a situation in what many say is the wealthiest community in the country in terms of real estate prices and family incomes.

How this came to be is a fascinating story. And you get a hint of it by its very name. Some guy named Peter made this road to drive down to Peters Pond. That’s right, the pond. Did I say anything about a pond?

From the earliest years of the English settlements in Sagaponack in the 1640s and for more than the 300 years that followed, a small pond by that name existed on the western side of the road down by the beach, separated from the ocean only by some sand dunes. People ice-skated on it in the wintertime and harvested ice from it for use in farmhouse ice boxes in the summertime. In the summer, people swam in it and waded in it and went clamming in it. Peters Pond Lane led down to it.

It was often the subject of painters. Thomas Moran painted it in 1890. It is a lovely rural piece, with the pond surrounded on three sides by potato farmland and the sand dunes on the fourth with the ocean beyond. It was also, of course, shown on all maps made of the community, at least until the 1950s.

Early on, the pond was put under the jurisdiction of a group of local officials called the Southampton Town Trustees. They were given their charter by agents of the King of England in 1688 to maintain and preserve wetlands, ponds, lakes and their bottoms in the town for the use of the town’s citizenry. One could not build a dock or in any way fence off or otherwise disturb these bodies of water without first getting approval of the trustees. Also, all local citizens had to be granted access to these waters by whoever owned the surrounding land—in the case of Peters Pond, by the Town of Southampton, a separate governing body from the Town Trustees.

In the 1960s, a colorful New Yorker named Kelsey Marechal bought property and a small oceanfront fisherman’s shack to the east of Peter’s Pond Lane along the ocean. He had sunset views over Peters Pond and sunrise views over the sea. He soon tore the fisherman’s shack down and in its place built a larger home, designed by architect Gene Futterman.

Marechal owned The Limelight, a popular nightspot in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He was also a horseman and a judge at fox hunts and horse shows. He fell in love with Sagaponack and eventually moved out here full time, where he soon became a member of the Planning Board and later the Architectural Review Board. He also in his later years wrote a column for The Southampton Press. And he was instrumental in the creation of the East End’s first horse show at the nearby Topping Farm in the early 1970s. A few years later, it became the Hampton Classic Horse Show we know today.

Kelsey told me some years ago when I interviewed him that he would never forget what happened in Sagaponack on the afternoon of January 6, 1978. Earlier in the morning, the weather was fine, but by noon a vicious winter storm had sprung up in the ocean to soon came ashore and turn its fierce wind, rain and snow onto the beach and farmland. Accompanied by lightning and thunder, the storm quickened and the tide rose, soon to send heavy waves of salt water crashing over the barrier dune into the fresh water of Peter’s Pond.

He watched it all from his kitchen window. Pretty soon the dunes by the pond wore down and created an opening into the pond, causing an inundation of much more salt water, causing the pond to overflow its banks.

“Then the tide went out,” Kelsey told me ruefully. “And with it, Peters Pond.”

The ocean simply slurped out the pond, leaving its muddy bottom open to the sky. When the storm passed, everyone waited for the pond to come back. It didn’t. The former pond, now a depression in the potato field, got plowed up and planted. The dune got restored. And Peters Pond has never been seen again.

There have been times when vestiges of the pond have returned, however. When I started the annual Dan’s Papers Kite Fly in 1978, I chose to hold it at Peters Pond Beach because we were told that among all the beach access roads, the lane was the only one involved in some sort of jurisdictional dispute, so anyone could park along it. But in 1986, when that year’s Kite Fly came, we all arrived to find we had to hold kites over our heads and wade through floodwaters up to our knees to get to the beach. Well, someone told me, that’s why they called it Peters Pond Lane. The flood waters went away in a few days, but we nevertheless though it prudent to move the Kite Fly to Sagg Main Beach, further to the west, from then on. That’s where we are every August.

The dispute was, of course, the matter of who owned that property and what restrictions the Trustees would put on it if, after 350 years, it was no longer a pond.

When some problems involving trash left at the beach came to the attention of the Town in the 1990s, they investigated and learned that a nearby homeowner had ordered a trash dumpster put down at the end of the lane, which unfortunately was now was getting filled with people’s household garbage as well as the trash from the beach. So there was now even more trash. In the end, the Town decided to put trash cans down at the end and have the highway department service them. But who knew who owned the property? It was Kelsey Marechal who brought to the Town’s attention that an early deed, never modified, indicated that the surviving lane was owned by the Town.

Meanwhile, where the pond had been, just to the west of the lane, together with 56 acres of land planted in potatoes, was purchased by billionaire Ira Rennert. He made no claim to the road. And though he has built a home consisting of a number of large residential buildings exceeding in total 110,000 square feet—some say it is the second largest private home in the country—he did decide to leave the former pond property unbuilt upon.

So, do the Southampton Town Trustees have jurisdiction where Peters Pond had been? What if the pond were to come back? With rising tides and global warming, it seems possible.

Of course, there is a law called Adverse Possession. If, for example, you use and flagrantly fence in a piece of your neighbor’s property where it attaches to yours for more than 10 years in New York State without objection from the neighbor, you can lay claim to it. Rennert has a fence around his property, but it doesn’t include the road.

Nobody seems to want to get into this mess.

This reminds me of a joke.

An elderly Jewish grandmother and her 5-year-old grandson are out on the beach, having fun. Suddenly, a huge wave comes in and, on its way back out, takes the five-year old with it. The woman shrieks, but there is nobody else on the beach. She looks up at the sky and pleads. “God, if you are up there, please return my grandson.”

One minute later, there is another huge wave that brings the 5-year-old gently back up onto the sand. She looks down at him. Then she looks up at the sky. “He had a hat,” she says.

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