“Truck Beach” Decision – 2/3/21

After eleven years of litigation, the Appellate Division, Second Department, has upheld the claims of five homeowner association plaintiffs to own the ocean beach areas adjacent to their developments, and has prohibited the Trustees and Town of East Hampton from issuing beach driving and parking permits over those beaches, in Seaview at Amagansett v. Trustees of Freeholders and Commonalty of Town of East Hampton.

The area in question, commonly referred to as the “truck beach,” was part of large tract of land that had been purchased from the Trustees by Arthur Benson in 1882.  The five homeowner associations were successors to a portion of Arthur Benson’s estate, including most of the beach area in question.  Though the beach has been privately owned since 1882, the Trustees and Town of East Hampton claimed, over a century later, that they had the right to allow the general public to use this private property for beach driving and parking.  In 2009, when the intensity of the parking and driving became a serious health and safety hazard for the homeowner associations, they joined together and commenced an action seeking a judgment declaring that they are the lawful owners of the beach area in question and that the Trustees and Town of East Hampton had no right to allow the general public onto this private property for beach driving and parking.  The case reached trial in 2016, and the trial court originally ruled in favor of the Trustees and Town.

On appeal, the Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court and concluded that the plaintiffs did in fact prove that they owned the beach areas in question and were entitled to an injunction prohibiting the beach driving and parking being allowed by the Trustees and Town.  With respect to the question of ownership, the Appellate Division found that the plaintiffs “produced all of the deeds in those respective chains of title, beginning with the Benson Deed, which is common to all of the homeowners associations’ chains of title,” and the plaintiffs therefore “established… that they owned title in fee simple absolute to the disputed portion of their respective properties.”

The Appellate Division also rejected the Trustees’ and Town’s theory that the beach driving and parking could be justified under a certain “reservation” in the original 1882 deed, which “reserved to the inhabitants of the Town of East Hampton the right to land fish boats and netts to spread the netts on the adjacent sands and care for the fish and material as has been customary heretofore…”  “Rather,” the Court reasoned, “the reservation is in the nature of an easement allowing the public to use the homeowners associations’ portion of the beach only for fishing and fishing-related purposes, as contemplated by the plain wording of the reservation.”  As a result, the Court concluded that “the reservation does not confer upon the Town and Trustees lawful governmental or regulatory power to issue permits allowing members of the public to operate and park vehicles on any portion of the beach owned by the homeowners associations.”

The Appellate Division remanded the matter back to the trial court for the entry of a final judgment against the Town and Trustees.