A few days ago, the Town Supervisor of the Town of Southampton and the Town Trustee President sent a letter to the State Comptroller and State Park Commissioner requesting an opinion as to whether Town Trustee property, known as Hayground Cove or the Rose Hill Drive Boat Ramp, a small waterfront area with a boat launch, is parkland. If so, it would be regulated by New York State’s strict interpretation of the public trust doctrine.
At issue is a private homeowner’s 15-year lease with the Trustees, which would allow the neighboring waterfront estate exclusive use to portions of the Trustees property to construct a private driveway in exchange for maintaining the Town’s existing boat ramp. Without state legislative approval, such exclusivity could be as thorny as a rose thicket and may run afoul of New York’s public trust doctrine.
The Public Trust Doctrine & Parkland Alienation
New York courts have long held that the “public trust” doctrine precludes the use of dedicated parkland for non-park uses. See, Matter of Avella v City of New York, 29 NY3d 425 . New York’s public trust doctrine is based on English common law that has evolved over centuries. In sum and substance, the public trust doctrine provides that certain land should, by use or by the purpose of its conveyance, be available for the use and enjoyment of the public. Only the State Legislature has the power to alienate parkland. See, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland
Under New York State’s public trust doctrine, land can become parkland either by a formal dedication through express provisions (i.e. restrictions in a deed or a legislative enactment), or by implied dedication manifested by acts such as continued use as a park. Id. Implied dedication of parkland occurs by actions or declarations by a local government that are unmistakable in their purpose and character as to intend to dedicate land for use as parkland. Examples include a municipality publicly announcing its intention to purchase the land specifically for use as a park and long continued and accepted use of land as a park can also constitute dedication through implication. Id.
Parkland alienation occurs when a municipality wishes to convey, sell, or lease municipal parkland or discontinue its use as a park no matter what the size. In order to legally convey parkland to a third party, or to use parkland for another purpose, a municipality must receive prior authorization from the New York State Legislature and be approved by the Governor.
In alienation cases, leases are carefully examined to determine the extent to which exclusivity is granted and a public benefit is served. See, Lake George Steamboat Co. v. Blais, 30 NY 2d 48  (exclusive lease of a park’s marina space to a private sightseeing company was found to be parkland alienation).
The Hayground Cove-Rose Hill Road Boat Ramp
According to the Town of Southampton’s website, the Rose Hill Boat Ramp is a public boat ramp for town residents. The surrounding Town-owned land appears to be operated as a park in connection with that boat launch, which use has gone on for decades. Under the lease agreement with the Trustees, in return for taking on the maintenance of the public boat ramp, the homeowner was able to move a line of trees from the middle of his property to the middle of the Trustees’ property, expanding the private lot’s circular driveway. The tree-moving work has already been completed.
While it is laudable that the Trustees are attempting to maintain a town boat launch at no cost to town residents, which arguably could be a plausible public purpose, is that sufficient in light of the long history of New York courts prohibiting parkland alienation for non-park uses absent specific authorizing legislation? We await a determination of the State Comptroller and Park Commissioner to see if the homeowner’s lease with the Town is valid. Either way, that decision could have a profound impact on similar agreements. Stay tuned.