But the owners, represented by Stephen R. Angel and James M. Catterson, argue that maintaining the historic right to fish is just an attempted workaround for increased, out-of-control vehicle access. What stops anyone from parking their car on the beach, sticking a fishing rod in the sand and claiming to be a fisherman, many say.
Mr Rodgers, who has represented many local fishermen over the years and has sometimes been paid in bay scallops, said his clients have become marginalized and rendered almost invisible. “They are in the fight of their lives for their very existence as fishers of the ocean,” he said. “If they fold now, it’s over.”
But Napeague owners warn that a history lesson is in order. Especially after Ken Silverman, one of the locals who led the charge against the trucks, started digging into local records. In 2005, Mr. Silverman began looking into trustee records and manuscript deeds dating back to the 1800s at the Suffolk County Clerk’s Office in Riverhead.
He discovered that in the 1880s, when city administrators were saddled with debt and on the verge of bankruptcy, they sold some 1,000 acres of Napeague land to Arthur W. Benson, a land developer and avid sport fisherman. . As a condition of the sale, the trustees retained a reservation – the famous easement still being argued in court today – to continue landing boats and extending nets and fish carts to and from the beach.
Mr Silverman said what he discovered proved that the city administrators did not own the beach and, depending on how the easement was interpreted, had no right to allow people to drive there.
Based on his discovery, the owners sued the city and its administrators in 2009, citing the 1880s sale, known as the Benson Deed, as evidence that the deeds to their properties included ownership of the beach. In 2016, after losing that first lawsuit, 110 owners dug in their heels. Five years and one appeal later, the court reversed its decision and ruled in their favour. The verdict of 2021: the owners own the beach and the use of vehicles is not authorized by the reservation.