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Truck Beach Was For Locals. Then the Oceanfront Homes Arrived.

For as long as Nathaniel Miller can remember, he has spent every summer at a beach in Napeague, a once-remote strip of marsh, pine forest and dunes sandwiched between Amagansett and Montauk in the Hamptons.

In the 1980s, the Miller family would drive their truck right onto the beach. While his father fished and his mother sunbathed, Mr. Miller and his two siblings would frolic in the surf. At some point, the family befriended a doctor who owned an oceanfront home with a saltwater swimming pool. As Mr. Miller remembers it, whatever his father caught ended up in the pool until it was time to take it home and cook it for dinner.

Back then, that 4,000-foot-long stretch of Napeague (which rhymes with fatigue) was one of the least developed areas in the Town of East Hampton. The construction boom in the area, initially fueled by Wall Street bonuses, was just beginning.

As Napeague filled out with homes and residents, so, too, did Truck Beach, which is what most locals started calling the stretch of sand that begins at Napeague Lane and extends eastward to the western boundary of Napeague State Park.

By the early 2000s, hundreds of locals were driving to Truck Beach on sunny weekends, parking their four-wheel-drive trucks side-by-side, Daytona Beach style. It was a lively, festive scene.

Right around the same time, the peaceful coexistence between day trippers in vehicles and owners of oceanfront homes in the area started to show some cracks. Families with coolers would set up camp for the day, using their seaside tailgates as a home base. Many beachfront homeowners who had paid millions to escape the throngs in the city and enjoy unobstructed views of the Atlantic grew increasingly enraged.

For the past dozen or so years, the Town of East Hampton, its trustees, local residents and owners of summer homes have been ensnarled in a contentious legal battle over whether four-wheel-drives have the right to park, from dawn to dusk, on Truck Beach during the summer. The fight, which boils down to public versus private beach access, is also fraught with class tensions, pitting year-round residents against wealthy summer visitors.

In February 2021, a group of Napeague homeowners, who had been fighting in court to end the use of the beach as, in their words, “a de facto parking lot,” came away victorious. Citing a “preponderance of evidence,” a state appeals court declared that the homeowners did, in fact, own the beach up to the mean high-water line. The decision, which reversed a 2016 ruling that had sided on behalf of the town and its trustees, effectively privatized what had long been considered a public beach.

Last summer, a sign went up on Truck Beach declaring it private property — with no vehicles allowed. Soon after that, a caravan of nearly 40 trucks, many waving American flags, were driving down the beach in an act of civil disobedience.

Truck Beach in 2015. Credit…Doug Kuntz

Eastern Long Island is hardly an outlier when it comes to tensions over beach privatization. Similar legal fights are underway in states including California, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, said Josh Eagle, a professor of property, environmental, natural resources and ocean and coastal law at the University of South Carolina.

Jaine Mehring, who has owned a home near Truck Beach for 20 years, blames overuse and overdevelopment. “Things have gotten very out of balance in this community,” she said. “The truck usage of the beach has exploded, with development along that shoreline continuing unabated.”

The court’s 2021 ruling is complicated by the terms of an old easement, or reservation, which allows the public to use the beach “for fishing and fishing-related purposes.” It is part of an obscure and somewhat recently rediscovered 140-year-old deed that helped the homeowners win their case last year. But the easement was written when East Hampton was a farming and fishing village, and when fishermen still depended on anything with wheels — horse-drawn carts, for example — to transport equipment to and from the water. The easement, both sides argue, is open to interpretation, which is why the 1880s document is once again making a star appearance in court this summer.

In March, the trustees joined forces with a dozen commercial fishermen, filing a class-action lawsuit, on behalf of the 28,000 town residents, in the Suffolk County Supreme Court against the five homeowners’ associations in Napeague which won the court battle last year. The lawsuit says that locals have been deprived of beach access for “fishing-related purposes,” which still requires the use of a vehicle. Although permitted vehicles are still allowed to drive onto most beaches of East Hampton before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. during the summer season, fishermen want all-day, year-round vehicle access to Truck Beach, a custom that, until a year ago, they had enjoyed for over a century.

Both sides are awaiting yet another verdict. And most likely, the decision will come down to how the court decides to interpret, once again, the 140-year-old fishing easement.

“This case is not just about who can fish and where. It’s about class. It’s about rich versus poor,” said Daniel G. Rodgers, the Southampton-based criminal defense attorney who is representing the commercial fishermen. “The homeowners want the trucks and the middle-class lowlifes to go away.”

But the homeowners, represented by Stephen R. Angel and James M. Catterson, argue that upholding the historical right to fish is merely an attempted workaround for increased — and out of control — vehicular access. What’s to keep anyone from parking his car on the beach, sticking a fishing rod in the sand and claiming himself a fisherman, many of them say.

Mr. Rodgers, who has represented many local fishermen over the years, and who has sometimes been paid in bay scallops, said his clients had become marginalized and rendered nearly invisible. “They’re in the fight of their lives for their very existence as ocean fishermen,” he said. “If they lay down now, it’s over.”

But the Napeague homeowners caution that a history lesson is in order. Especially after Ken Silverman, one of the residents who has led the charge against the trucks, started to do some digging in the local archives. In 2005, Mr. Silverman began poring over trustee records and handwritten deeds going back to the 1800s at the Suffolk County Clerk’s office in Riverhead.

He discovered that in the 1880s, when the town’s trustees were debt-ridden and on the verge of bankruptcy, they sold some 1,000 acres of Napeague land to Arthur W. Benson, a real estate developer and avid sports fisherman. As a condition of the sale, the trustees retained a reservation — the famous easement still being debated in court today — to continue to land boats and spread nets and cart fish to and from the beach.

Mr. Silverman said that what he unearthed proved that the town trustees did not own the beach, and depending on how one interpreted the easement, did not have the right to allow people to drive on it.

Based on his discovery, the homeowners sued the town and its trustees in 2009, citing the 1880s sale, known as the Benson Deed, as proof that the deeds to their properties included ownership of the beach. In 2016, after losing that first lawsuit, 110 homeowners dug in their heels. Five years and one appeal later, the court reversed its decision and ruled on their side. The 2021 verdict: The homeowners own the beach and vehicular use is not permitted by the reservation.

“People had been told one thing for decades and decades and decades and decades, only to have someone uncover the truth,” Mr. Silverman said, noting that the town and trustees still claimed ownership of the area, according to other documents he had found. “But they’ve deflected it all onto the homeowners, blaming us for stealing the beach, when we actually had nothing to do with it.”

While Bill Taylor, who was elected to the East Hampton Trustee Board in 2013, can understand Mr. Silverman’s “personal obsession” with this issue, he becomes annoyed when the Napeague homeowners quote the first few words of the reservation but leave out the rest — the important stuff, he says.

“The trustees are bringing this lawsuit on our own for all the inhabitants of East Hampton to maintain their right to use that beach for fishing, as it says in the deed. This is not the old case. This is a brand-new case about what that reservation means,” he said.

Ken Silverman discovered a 140-year-old deed that he says proves the beach around Napeague is privately owned. The State Supreme Court recently agreed with him.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

As the debate continues to wend its way through court, legal fees, which are rapidly mounting, have been shared among the five homeowners’ associations in Napeague, Mr. Silverman said. Since 2015, the town has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal costs, according to its clerk and registrar. “Everyone says when you’re fighting city hall it takes a long time,” Mr. Silverman said. “One of the theories of municipal litigation is that if they can drag it out for long enough, people get tired, they run out of money, they move to Florida, they die.”

Litigation may be dragging on, but both sides remain entrenched, arguing over aesthetics, ethics, fairness and tradition.

“This isn’t about sunbathing and driving trucks on the beach. This is about men and women working for a living,” said Daniel Spitzer, a lawyer representing the trustees of the town. “The fishermen are entitled to their day in court.”

Mr. Catterson, a lawyer for the homeowners, disagreed. “At the last trial, when we put on a videotape, there were about 300 trucks on the beach and no one — not one person — was fishing,” he said.

While the lawyers for the homeowners assert that traditional forms of fishing, like using nets from dories, no longer exist, Dan Lester, a commercial fisherman, begs to differ. He said that he often uses gill nets to catch striped bass on Truck Beach, driving along the sand to determine conditions and migratory patterns. Over the years, as beach-driving rules in the Hamptons had become more restrictive, Truck Beach had always welcomed locals with vehicles such as himself, until that changed last summer.

To Mr. Lester, Mr. Miller and other local fishermen, what has happened in Napeague is just “another greedy land grab by the people from away,” Mr. Lester said. His family’s roots in East Hampton date to the 1800s. Mr. Lester’s great-grandfather used a horse and wagon to go fishing on the beach.

“I’m not asking anyone permission to do something my family has been doing for hundreds of years,” said Mr. Lester, a year-round resident of Amagansett. “As far as I’m concerned, they should go back to Manhattan and leave us alone. Everyone wants to come here because of the way it is. But don’t come here and try to change it.”

Last June Dan Lester, in shorts and sunglasses, took part in a caravan protesting the lack of access to Truck Beach. Credit…Doug Kuntz

Some 13 generations ago, Mr. Miller’s ancestors settled in East Hampton. A commercial fisherman and father of two, he sells his catch on Friday afternoons from his property in Springs, a hamlet of East Hampton. “This is where I belong, and this is what I do. But I’m the last of it,” he said. “My kids will never be able to afford to live here.”

Last October, 14 local residents, including Mr. Miller and Mr. Lester, received tickets for unlawful trespassing during a protest on Truck Beach. This summer, both men vow to continue using the beach until they’re taken away in handcuffs.

Mr. Eagle, the law professor, said he hoped both sides would come to a compromise: somewhere between reasonable use and unfettered access. Still, he emphasized that for homeowners whose primary goals are privacy and exclusivity, they might consider buying land elsewhere. “If you want a property where you’re never going to see anybody,” he said, “don’t buy a beachfront house.”

Carter Burwell, a film composer who has lived year-round in Napeague since 2009, is also hoping for a compromise, it seems. “I wouldn’t want to see the beaches of the United States privately owned,” he said. “And I also wouldn’t want to see the beaches become parking lots.”

But if a compromise doesn’t happen, Mother Nature could have the final say.

This spring, the Town of East Hampton released a draft of its coastal assessment and resiliency plan. It did not mince words: “The currently projected range of sea level rise will transform East Hampton into a series of islands with permanent submergence of low-lying areas, as early as 2070.”

In just a few decades, much of Napeague — along with the contested strip of narrow beachfront speckled with plumes of sea grass — may well be fully submerged.

Amanda M. Fairbanks is a journalist based in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Her first book, “The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind,” is newly out in paperback.

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