Here’s one for the history buffs! A quiet feud between the State of New York and the Town of Oyster Bay over the Town’s underwater boundary has been resolved (for now) in Murphy v. Town of Oyster Bay, — N.Y.S.3d —-, 2019 WL 1646259 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 02887.
On January 1, 2010, the Plaintiff, Brian Murphy, was harvesting shellfish in waters near the maritime border between the Long Island Sound and the waters of Oyster Bay. At the time, Mr. Murphy possessed a license from the State of New York granting him permission to harvest shellfish from marine waters of the State.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Murphy, the State and the Town of Oyster Bay have disagreed on the precise locations of the lines separating the underwater lands belonging to the Town from the portions of the Long Island Sound that are owned by the State of New York. On January 1st, Town of Oyster Bay officials discovered Mr. Murphy in the midst of his harvesting and promptly issued him a citation for shellfishing without a Town permit. Mr. Murphy received a second citation from the Town two months later.
In August, 2010, Mr. Murphy filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a judicial decree that the Town’s citations against him were invalid because he was lawfully shellfishing in the Long Island Sound. The Town and the State were both named as defendants.
In its defense, the Town evoked the 1677 patent issued by Edmond Andros, Governor General under James Duke of York, which established the general description of the boundaries of the Town of Oyster Bay (the “Andros Patent”). Citing the Andros Patent, the Town claimed title to all underwater lands south of a line drawn between Oak Neck Point in Oyster Bay and Lloyd Point on Lloyd’s Neck in Huntington. In response, the State claimed that the Town boundary lay farther to the south on a line drawn between Rocky Point in Oyster Bay and Whitewood Point on Lloyd’s Neck in Huntington. There was no dispute among the parties that Mr. Murphy was harvesting shellfish in the area between these two imaginary lines.
The Town and the State each filed motions for summary judgment based upon documentary evidence, including the Andros Patent, and governing principles of maritime and international law, and federal versus state sovereignty. The trial court (Hon. Stephen A. Bucaria, J.) ruled for the State. See Murphy v. The Town of Oyster Bay, Short Form Order, Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. Index No. 00624/12, Motion Seq. #002, 003, 004 (Jan. 12, 2016).
The lower court observed that while the Andros Patent describes the Town’s northern boundary as the Long Island Sound it never “expressly define[d] the boundary between the Sound and the Bay.” Consequently, the precise location of the Town’s northern maritime border was left unresolved. Id. at p. 3.
The lower court’s opinion touches upon several interesting concepts which deserve a full read of the written decision. For purposes of this post, the Court’s holding provides sufficient explanation. Judge Bucaria wrote:
Under New York State law, crown patents, as distinguished from Royal Colonial Charters, are to be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign, and against the patentee. Similarly, under federal law, states enjoy a presumption of title to submerged lands beneath inland navigable waters within their boundaries. Since New York State has a presumption of title to submerged lands, the burden of proof … is on the Town.
Neither the State nor the Town offers any documents contemporaneous with the Andros Patent, specifying the extent of the underwater land which Andros intended to convey. Thus, the boundary between the Sound and the Bay must be determined not by reference to principles of international law, or the Town’s history of control, but by the nature and situation of the land and the circumstances surrounding the Andros patent. … As early as Rogers v Jones, supra, in 1828, it was assumed by New York’s highest court that the boundary between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound was around Lloyd’s Neck. Based upon the nautical charts … submitted to the court, as well as the limitations upon Andros’ authority to grant sovereign status, the State has established prima facie that the boundary between the Bay and the Sound is the line connecting Rocky Point to Whitewood Point on Lloyd’s Neck. In view of the Town’s failure to offer evidence that Andros intended another boundary line, the court must render judgment for the State.
Murphy v. The Town of Oyster Bay (Bucaria, J.), supra, at pp. 5-6 (internal citations omitted).
On appeal, the Second Department affirmed Judge Bucaria’s decision. Finding that the Andros Patent is indeed ambiguous with respect to the precise dividing line between the Sound and the Bay, the Court resorted to the extrinsic evidence presented in the record. The Court opined:
The record in this case demonstrates that the State’s proposed boundary line is the only fair interpretation of the Andros Patent. Here … the record contains no factual matter that might support a different conclusion. For example, the parties submitted no evidence showing some different historical understanding of Oyster Bay or bays more generally, or personal accounts of mariners or other witnesses that, if credited, might support the Town’s proposed headlands. The record that the parties opted to compile in this case simply does not permit more than one inference as to the appropriate boundary line. Thus … the Supreme Court appropriately resolved the dispute as a matter of law, and we agree with the court’s declaration that the boundary line between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound is the line running east from Rocky Point in Oyster Bay to Whitewood Point on Lloyd’s Neck, and that the State owns all of the underwater lands north of that line.
Murphy v. Town of Oyster Bay, et al., 2019 WL 1646259 at *2.
The development in Murphy is an interesting one, as is the unassuming circumstances from which the litigation arose. But whether the courts’ decision will last is yet to be determined. The Town may yet seek to appeal the Appellate Division’s decision. Alternatively, it could petition the State legislature to change the location of the boundary set by the courts. The battle for the bay may not be done.
Copies of the decisions can be accessed free of charge on the Appellate Division, Second Department website, http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/ad2/handdowns.shtml, and the New York State Unified Court System website, https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/webcivil/FCASSearch (Index Search: 00624/2012).