A line in the sand Neighbors disagree on beach access rights
Most Long Islanders would agree that walks on the beach are a way of life here. Whether you traverse the high bluffs and rocky North Shore or stick your feet in the smooth South Shore sand, these are moments of peace and bliss.
In East Patchogue’s Miramar Beach, a community of about 400 homes, a popular walking route has been a loop that starts at the end of either Bayview or Dunton avenues, walking along shorefront properties in between. In recent weeks, however, these beach walks that cross over private property have become a source of contention among neighbors.
It started with a fence erected by homeowners on South Dunton Avenue. Standing at Miramar Beach Town Park, it’s easy to see other homes’ property lines marked with subtle landscaping, solar lanterns or vegetation. Approaching the eastern public beach, walkers are now met with an obstacle: an orange mesh fence and two thick chains. The posts, which go right up against several small boulders, are adorned with warning and danger signs marking their private property.
“It looks like a construction site,” said Miramar Beach Civic Association president Jacquelyn Schwicke. “A fence is a fence is a fence,” she added, noting that town officials previously cited the homeowners for a stockade fence they put up. Not long after that was taken down, the orange mesh went up.
This time around, town officials claim that the homeowners have a right to mark their property with the fence. “Fences are allowed on their private property,” said councilman Neil Foley. “Per the town attorney and our environmental specialist, [the homeowners] are allowed to have it because it’s above the mean high-water mark,” he added.
Thus, confusion ensues. Residents argue that the high-water mark changes daily and has not been officially calculated by the town. The New York State Public Trust Doctrine notes that anything below the high-water mark on a beach is public land, and anything above that mark is private property. The wrack line, where seaweed and other debris wash up, is often viewed as the high-tide marking.
“The fence doesn’t limit [residents] any access to the beach,” Foley added. Though he acknowledged that climbing over the emerged rock bed may be difficult for some, he suggested simply walking the other way. “They can go down one block over and walk that beach,” he said.
His stance has been unpopular with residents of the beach community, who are speaking out on issues of aesthetics, safety and the public trust. Karen Felg, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1976, would frequently walk the beach loop before injuring her leg last winter. “It was so peaceful to just walk along the sand,” she said. Now, Felg is able to walk again, but says she can’t get past the rocks. “It’s a disgrace; I can’t get around this barricade anymore,” she said. Recalling an afternoon when she did try to cross, Felg said the signs on the fence posts were intimidating enough to ward her off. “We’ve never had issues over the beach in this neighborhood. We welcome everyone. For these part-time residents to construct this fence … it doesn’t feel very neighborly,” she said.
The concept of public lands and coastal resources being owned and shared by the public dates back 2000 years to the Roman Empire. In modern times, the concept of the Public Trust Doctrine holds that natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment. New York State Coastal Policy 20 states that “Access to the publicly owned foreshore and to lands immediately adjacent to the foreshore or the water's edge that are publicly owned shall be provided and it shall be provided in a manner compatible with adjoining uses.” The policy also notes that public pedestrian access should not be diminished due to hazardous crossings or private development.
“We have to respect their private property,” Schwicke said. “The public can’t set up blankets or an umbrella there, but they absolutely have the right to walk by.” She said that most people follow this, but occasionally there are people who linger, sitting on the rocks.
A video shot by a former resident shows the homeowners asking the woman and her children to leave. “You’re on private property,” the homeowner warns. “I’m just giving you the rules. We are kindly telling you that they need to stay behind this line. We respectfully ask you to get behind the fence.” The homeowners did not respond to requests for comment.
As coastal land has become privatized, there are several court cases that set precedent for these issues, notably out on the North Fork and in New Jersey. To date, there has not been any court action in Miramar Beach.
Schwicke says the civic association is looking into legal action, but would prefer not to go that route. Foley agrees. “We have to learn to live with each other. Though it has become a little more difficult, constituents can still walk the beach,” Foley said, reiterating that the homeowners have the right to their fence. “I wish cooler heads could have prevailed and the neighbors could have come to a compromise,” he said.
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