The Narrow Powers of the Colonial Trustees
The New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, has determined that the colonial-era Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonalty of the Town of Southampton possess very limited authority over oceanfront land use within an incorporated village. Incorporated Village of West Hampton Dunes v. Semlear, et al. 2014 NY Slip Op 50137(U).
Based on language in special statutes addressing the Trustees’ powers, the Southampton Town Code purports to recognize “a right-of-way controlled by the Town Trustees” over oceanfront areas. The Trustees have historically asserted correspondingly broad “regulatory” authority over those areas. The Court holds that Town Code imposition of broad Trustee authority on lands within the village violates the Municipal Home Rule Law.
The decision makes clear that the Trustees’ regulatory power within a village is restricted to the “management of the specific activities and uses reserved to the Town's inhabitants under [Chapter 155 of] the Laws of 1818, such as ‘taking seaweed from the shores of any of the common lands of the town, or carting or transporting to or from, or landing property on said shores, in the manner heretofore practiced.’"
(Kudos to Constructive Notice subscriber Jonathan Sinnreich, Esq. and his team at Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina, LLP on their impressive win.)
No previously reported case has directly addressed the nature of the reserved public rights or the extent of the Southampton Trustees’ regulatory authority. This decision recognizes only the very limited authority conferred upon the Trustees directly by the 1818 statute. The court determines the Trustees “are an entity of the Town,” but does not address the scope of the Trustees’ regulatory power outside of incorporated villages. Likewise, the authority of the Town to extend the statutorily prescribed Trustees’ powers is left unresolved.