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 [2017].  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 [1972] (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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

 

Now more than ever, climate resiliency along our coastlines is an important aspect of long range municipal planning.   Back in 1981, the New York State Legislature enacted the Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act, N.Y. Exec. Law § 910. (the “NYS Coastal and Waterways Act”).

Coastal communities and communities on designated inland waterways are eligible to participate in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. Coastal communities are communities on the Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, New York Harbor and the waters around New York City, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, Niagara River or the St. Lawrence River; eligible communities on designated inland waterways include communities located on an inland waterbody, such as a major lake, river or the State Canal, or other inland waterway designated by Article 42 of the Executive Law.

Among other things, the NYS Coastal and Waterways Act encourages local governments to participate in the State’s coastal management efforts by submitting local waterfront revitalization programs (“LWRPs”) to the Secretary of the DOS for approval. See N.Y. Exec. Law § 915(1).  Under the Act, any local government, which has any portion of its jurisdiction contiguous to the state’s coastal waters or inland waterways may submit an LWRP to the Secretary of State.  See, NYS Guidebook.  If an LWRP is approved by the Secretary , state agency actions in that municipality must also “be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the local program.” Id. at § 915(8).

Unfortunately, the Act is silent regarding the relationship between the LWRP and local comprehensive land use plans and zoning.   However, to ensure that local development and waterfront revitalization plans are appropriately integrated into the local land use planning and zoning regulatory framework, many municipalities have incorporated their approved LWRPs into zoning regulations.  As a result, the LWRP policy document may serve as a legal foundation for zoning changes in part, due to their incorporation into the comprehensive plan.  By doing so, municipalities are able to effectively provide implementation mechanisms that support the principles and goals delineated in the waterfront plan through the use of their zoning powers.  See generally, Bonnie Briar Syndicate, Inc. v. Town of Mamaroneck, 94 N.Y.2d 96, (1999), 

The Department of State’s Division of Local Government provides training assistance to municipalities relating to zoning procedures in addition to other practical legal and technical advise.   See, www.dos.state.ny.us/lgss.

 

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR for New York Times Climate change / sea-level rise in Fiji The shoreline of Vunidoloa is heavily eroded due to the rising waters. Vunidoloa is situated on the Natewa Bay on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Vunidoloa has 140 inhabitants and frequently floods due to the rising waters. The situ ation became so precarious that the government decided to relocate the village. Unfortunately the site was poorly designed and is eroding before anyone moved there.

Asharoken, N.Y. January 10, 2017 — Swayed by public opinion, the Incorporated Village of Asharoken (“Asharoken”) opted out of a federal beach nourishment plan implemented by the Army Corp of Engineers (“ACOE”) in order to prevent the general public from accessing the Villages’ private beaches.

Asharoken is a narrow isthmus connecting the Village of Northport on the ‘mainland’ of Long Island with the hamlet of Eatons Neck, which is part of an unincorporated area located in the Town of Huntington. Asharoken is bordered by Huntington Bay, Northport Bay, and Eatons Neck. The eastern coast of Asharoken fronts along the Long Island Sound.

Asharoken Avenue, the village’s main road, is the only land evacuation route for village residents and about 1,400 non-village residents of Eatons Neck.  Without this land bridge, Eaton’s Neck and Asharoken would both be cut off from the mainland.

Asharoken experiences moderate to severe beach erosion on the areas fronting the Long Island Sound. This erosion is caused by storm-induced waves and wave run-up from hurricanes and nor’easters. The village has experienced damages from multiple storm events, most recently Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

In spite of the known safety risks of their precarious evacuation route, the Asharoken Board of Trustees passed a resolution last Tuesday, effectively opposing a $20 million dune restoration project because of the federal government’s mandate for public access to the beaches when taxpayer dollars are utilized. In order to receive funds for the beach nourishment project, Asharoken would be required to add five public walkways to access the beach and five public parking areas at half-mile intervals along the project’s 2.4-mile stretch along Asharoken Avenue.

Despite a history of rising sea levels, the Asharoken Trustees capitulated to resident outcry over the potential loss of their private beach rights rather than balance their decision on the public health, safety and welfare of the Village and Town residents.

Only time will tell if this game of Russian roulette ends well.

aid157119-728px-Install-Posts-in-the-Water-for-a-Dock-or-Pier-Step-1  In New York, as a general rule, the touchstone of riparian rights has been the ownership of land touching a navigable waterway. See Bromberg v. Morton 64 AD2d 684 [2d Dept 1978].  As a result, unless expressly reserved by deed, if a waterfront lot is partitioned, any resulting lot that no longer physically touches the water  becomes non-waterfront property and loses its riparian rights.  Durham v. Ingrassia, 105 Misc2d 191 [Sup Ct., Nassau County 1980].

However, there is a developing line of case law in the Second and Third Departments holding that an easement that provides access to a navigable waterway provides the beneficiary of the easement with the riparian right to construct a dock equal to that of the actual waterfront owner.  See Briggs v. Donna, 176 AD2d 1105 [3d Dept 1991].

In Briggs v. Donna, the Third Department held that although there is no language in any of the plaintiffs’ deeds expressly granting a right to construct a dock, the plaintiffs’ dock at the foot of an easement was a “reasonable use” of the easement and incidental to plaintiffs’ access rights under the easement.  In short, the easement holder, a non-waterfront landowner, possessed the same riparian rights as the actual waterfront landowner to build a dock to navigable water.

Relying on this reasoning, the Second Department, in Monohan v. Hampton Point, 264 AD2d 764 [2d Dept 1999], reinforced the position that riparian rights extend from an easement to access navigable water.  In that case, the court held that, as a matter of law, the easement to access the water was sufficient to create the riparian right of wharfing out, and the subject dock located at the end of an easement leading to a navigational portion of the waterway was a reasonable and incidental use of the easement.  See also, Hush v. Taylor 84 AD3d 1532 [3d Dept 2011] Installation of a dock at the end of an easement of this type “is a reasonable use incidental to the purpose of the easement” and is, therefore, permissible).

Under the right circumstances, Courts have reasoned that the existence of an easement to the water’s edge would have been “without purpose” if it did not provide for the construction of a dock or pier to provide access to the waterway.

As a result, this line of case law seems to remove the need for landowners to actually own waterfront land in order to exert their riparian right of access by a dock or pier. Instead, an easement running to the shoreline includes the right to construct a pier or dock to obtain access to navigable water.

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Rising sea levels and erosion have caused severe damage to Asharoken Avenue, the only road into or out of the Village of Asharoken.  These conditions continue to endanger the lives and property of the people that live in Eatons Neck.  Yet, despite the potential benefits from a multi-million dollar federally funded project that will protect Asharoken Avenue, the Village remains steadfast in its attempts to wall off the beach to Village residents only, even though the waterfront protection project is being funded by state and federal taxpayer dollars.

Since colonial settlers arrived on these shores, the residents of Long Island have had their beach rights protected.  Now, it seems, in a  process that has lingered for years,  the Village is attempting to characterize this federal project as merely roadway protection with no provision for the general public to access the beaches, despite the fact that the general public is paying the lion’s share of the costs.

The proposed protection of Asharoken Avenue by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) is basically a beach renourishment project.   Federal law requires public access wherever the Army Corps performs beach protection or renourishment, yet many Village residents and beach lot owners remain vehemently opposed to public access to their properties.

As the sea level rises, the Village Trustees are now being forced to think about what needs to be done with ever increasing cries for help from homeowners and public officials.  The end result may be the Army Corps using the power of eminent domain to protect the public’s right to the shoreline.  It remains to be seen if the Village can have its cake and eat it, too.

beach erosionThree distinct common law rules deal with the capricious nature of the shoreline.  These terms are referred to in the legal community as accretion, erosion and avulsion.

“Accretion” is the term which applies to the gradual increase or acquisition of land by the action of natural forces washing up sand, soil or silt from the water course or seashore.  The opposite of accretion, “erosion” is the gradual washing away of land along the shoreline.  However, the sudden and often very perceptible change to a shoreline by natural forces is referred to as “avulsion.’  Hurricanes, nor’easters and other storms are typically credited with causing avulsion.

When land is increased by accretion, that “new” land becomes the property of the riparian land owner, while any removal of land due to the gradual effects of erosion or sea level rising becomes lost by the waterfront owner.  Unlike accretion and erosion, land lost by avulsion, remains the property of the land owner as if the water’s edge had not been moved.  Thus, the landowner has the right to reclaim and replenish this newly created underwater area without suffering the loss of title.  However, when land is created by avulsion, the landowner does not obtain any rights to the newly created land.  Shoreline boundaries increased by a beach re-nourishing project have been found to be a form of avulsion and, therefore, the additional beach area created does not become the property of the adjacent property owner.

These distinctions between the ever changing shoreline processes have significant legal ramifications in New York, because under the common law, an oceanfront land owner whose boundary line is described to include the “shore line” or the “high water line” automatically takes title to any new land above the mean high water mark added by accretion.  This is sometimes known as the ambulatory property line.[2]

This issue is at the forefront of pending litigation in the Village of West Hampton Dunes, Suffolk County New York.  In Strough v Incorporated Village of West Hampton Dune,[3] the Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonality of the Town of Southampton and the Town of Southampton commenced an action against the Incorporated Village of West Hampton Dunes and several individuals and entities that own real property located on the shore of Moriches Bay in Suffolk County.  The Trustees and the Town claim that two severe storms in December 1992 and March 1993, suddenly deposited millions of tons of sand on the bottom of Moriches Bay, which extended the beachfront property by several hundred feet.  Although the Trustees and the Town claim that the disputed land belongs to them because it was suddenly created by avulsion, the property owners claim that the disputed land belongs to them because it was slowly created over a long period of time by the natural process of accretion.  To date, neither the Town or the property owners have progressed beyond that point and this matter is still pending before the Court.

Thus, waterfront boundary lines and ownership remain as ever changing as the landscape they describe, and on Long Island, with its miles of shoreline, much can be lost or gained by the gradual movements of tiny grains of sand.


[1] See, Florida Department of Environmental Protection v. Stop the Beach Nourishment, 130 S.Ct. 2592 (2010).

[2]Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonality of Town of Southampton v. Buoninfante¸303 A.D. 579 2d (2nd Dept. 2003).

[3] 79 A.D.3d 1037 (2nd Dept 2010).