Fencing It Off: This Beach in Front of My House is Mine, Everybody Else Take Note

A family named Zweig last week had a contractor put a series of steel posts into the sand on the beach in front of their oceanfront home just two houses west of the entrance to Georgica Beach. The posts go from the cliff at the back of the dunes, across the beach toward the ocean to a point about halfway to the surf, turn 90 degrees to continue on parallel to the ocean for 100 yards or so, then go back up the beach to the cliff. They basically follow what the Zweigs say are the boundaries of their oceanfront property from the dunes to the surf marked by pre-existing concrete boundary monuments in the sand to prove it.

The enclosure, which the Zweigs say will soon be fitted with snow fence, will define the area where their sand was taken away by the storm. They intend to buy new sand from truckers and thereby restore it. But the fence will also keep out any sunbathers and beachgoers, something that the Zweigs apparently feel is not their problem. [expand]

For miles and miles in both directions along the beach from this arrangement of metal poles, there are private homes which, like the Zweigs’, lost tons of their beachfront sand to Hurricane Irene two weeks ago. You don’t see one single property in either direction whose owner has fenced off the beach like this.

Idoline Duke, whose family owns the house just to the west of the Zweigs, had been out on the beach, talking to Zach, the son of Mollie Zweig, as he measured out where the proposed enclosure would go, explaining that this can’t be done, that it will block not only the Duke’s access to this part of the beach and everybody else’s, but also the Duke’s view, which at certain times of the year includes the sun setting over the ocean.

But the Zweigs, in my opinion, seems to have that millionaire mentality, which says if you buy something worth this much money, you can fence it off and do pretty much what you want inside of it without regard to everybody else.

The fact is there are many things about the Zweigs’ property, your property or my property, which are regulated by the authorities.

On your own property, whether you like it or not, you cannot shine a bright light into your neighbor’s home. You cannot land a helicopter on your property. You cannot put a cesspool on the side of your house next for your neighbor’s house. You cannot play music too loud on your property. You cannot build on your property a fence more than six feet high facing the street and more than four feet high facing the neighbor’s yard. You cannot bury industrial waste on your property. You cannot build a hog rendering plant on your property. (People in the Hamptons will be amused to know that in many town ordinance booklets this specific thing is mentioned as something you cannot do.) And I don’t know, I think it is probably illegal to sunbathe naked on your property in full view of people off your property, although I may be wrong about that one.

Here on the ocean, where the good Lord might taketh away one million tons of sand from your property and sail it out to sea in 45 minutes, you are free to buy one million tons of sand and have it trucked onto your property to replenish what was lost. (You also might wait for a storm to bring the one million tons of sand back, which is what most people do.) But you cannot hem that sand in with permanent structures to prevent some of it from spilling onto somebody else’s property, or back out into the ocean.

Also on the beach, you cannot prevent people from walking along the sand across your property to get from point A to point B. Surfcasters have the right to drive trucks from one point to another. If a seal were to slither up onto the beach on your property it is not suddenly yours, and if you think it is and take charge of it, you can get a big fine from the environmental people. You also can’t build a building or other structure on your beach or dune.

In some ways, what the Zweigs have already done here seems to come under the heading of self-inflicted wounds. The wooden ladder that comes down to the beach from their home is now piled high with sandbags that presumably the Zweigs put there, maybe to keep the ladder up during the storm, or, just possibly, to keep people on the beach from using it. But now not even the Zweigs can’t use it.

As for the view from their home, it looks out at the very poles they have erected. They see the inside. Everybody else sees the outside.

Four years ago, the biggest oceanfront land purchase in the Hamptons took place in East Hampton Village when Wall Street veteran Ron Baron bought a 40-acre parcel on the ocean from Adelaide de Menil and her husband Ted Carpenter for $103 million. After the purchase, Baron built a six-foot-high, 504-foot-long concrete wall—which he called a retaining wall—parallel to the ocean and a hundred yards inland from it, right on property he owned, but still in the dunes between his home and the ocean. The town ultimately forced him to jackhammer the wall out because it was in “protected” dunes.

The authorities of the Village of East Hampton have already visited Mollie Zweig. So has a representative from the State Department of Environmental Protection. I don’t know if the Town Trustees have been down there, but one would expect they will be soon.

The trustees defend the right of the citizens to have free and unobstructed passage up and down the beach. The Village defends the right to have no hard structures built on the beach and to have free access up and down the beach for emergency vehicles. They also defend coastal zone hazard laws and dune protection laws. And the DEC has to approve other things that might in some way impact the environment.

I am not sure whether the local authorities have the right to come in, even with a warrant, and tear out the steel poles, although maybe they do, in extreme occasions. I know they have gone onto private property—after many warnings were given—to clean up junk that is just left around by a property owner in a way that is a blight on the neighborhood. What they can surely do is issue fines for violations, and I have seen villages out here send ordinance officials out every day to issue summonses to the effect that yes, the violation that was ticketed yesterday is still going on today. (They did that to a foreigner who in the middle of downtown Southampton, kept goats, sheep, geese, roosters and chickens in his yard. I wrote, objecting, but they did it anyway.) These fines can quickly spiral into very large sums.

Hopefully, the Zweigs will come to see that they simply made a mistake in not finding out what the laws are, and will take out these steel posts.

If they don’t do that and if this matter drags on and on in court for years with these metal poles sticking out of the landscape, it’s my opinion that the Zweigs may become unpopular with the people in town. The first indication of this came from a sign in front of Idoline Duke’s house that says, “The Beaches Belong to the People and My Beach is Your Beach,” written in both in English and Spanish.

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As we go to press, we have learned that East Hampton Village has issued several summonses to the Zweigs for violating a Village stop work order. Both Mollie Zweig, the homeowner, and Bob Sullivan, the contractor of the fence, have been ordered to appear in Town Justice Court on October 14.

Last Thursday, the Village issued a stop work order because the project needed permits under state tidal wetlands and coastal erosion law. But on Friday, the contractor was seen out there putting steel extensions on the top of the new steel poles, which meant he was not complying with the order.

The reason the extensions were being put on, it seems, was because the sea was already beginning to wash back the sand that the hurricane had taken out, and if that continued, the steel fence posts already in the sand would soon be buried entirely in the sand and no longer be visible.  Hmmm.

For those interested in following this story further, there is a Facebook page called “Friends of Georgica Beach” that can be accessed.

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