Up until this past weekend, people walking west of Breakwater Beach at Mattituck Inlet at high tide would have come across a strange sight: a split rail fence several feet high crossing the beach and going straight down into the surf, making walking the beach impossible without hopping the fence.
Neighbors have been at odds with Soundbeach Drive resident Christine Rivera, who put the fence there. For years, they have disagreed about where her property ends. This summer, she extended the fence by 10 feet in order to make clear to anyone walking by that they were walking on land she claimed.
She makes her claim on the basis of a lawsuit she won in 2007 against the town and New York State. The ruling gave her ownership of the sand that has built up along her beach because of the jetty at Breakwater Beach. Her ownership extends as far as the mean high water mark, the average high tide line on her beach.
The problem now, she says, is that she extended the fence in August, with a permit granted by the Town Trustees. But then rough seas from Hurricane Earl washed 30 feet of sand off her beach, leaving the fence in the water during most high tides.
“We’ve had horrific high tides this fall,” she said on Monday. “A couple of weeks ago, it was up to the reeds in front of my house. But I have been adhering to my permit and I’ve lived within the spirit of the law.”
Ms. Rivera pulled the fence out over the weekend after several of her neighbors complained to the Southold Town Board and the Southold Town Trustees last week, but she said she plans to reinstall it in the spring. She said she also had her Trustee permit amended last week to allow her to install the fence on a seasonal basis.
One of her neighbors, John Cleary, had open heart surgery earlier this year, and he walks the beach to build up strength after his operation.
“I had to climb over the fence because it went into the water. I hurt my back and had to walk back up to my house backwards,” he said. “It’s just a simple thing. Can I walk on the beach? The New York State Constitution says I can walk on the beach. The fence is into the water every day that I’ve been there.”
Mr. Cleary also said he worried that if he or anyone else had a medical emergency while walking the beach, emergency responders would not be able to get over the fence.
Another of Ms. Rivera’s neighbors, Paul Calabro, was equally upset when he complained to the Southold Town Board about the fence.
“The first 34 years I lived there, that place was paradise. The last three years were hell,” he told the board last Tuesday. “As soon as they see somebody walking, they call the cops.”
“I never stopped fishermen from fishing or someone from walking on the beach,” said Ms. Rivera, adding that her beef was with people who sunbathe or spend time on her property.
“If they’re above the high tide mark, they’re trespassing regardless of where the fence ends. I would no more go and sit on their back lawn,” she said. “I don’t understand why they think they can do it.”
Mr. Cleary and several of his neighbors brought their concerns last week to the Town Trustees, who oversee beach access, but he said they were dismissed by the board.
“They told us we’re not telling the truth. They told us we were wrong. Trustee [Jim] King as much as called me a liar,” he said. “What’s the sense of trying to talk to them?”
Mr. King said Friday he believed Ms. Rivera is in compliance with her permit and blamed this fall’s weather for making it appear that her fence went beyond the normal high water mark.
“We get big tides in nor’easters and the water comes up to the fence,” he said. “People are screaming it’s out too far, but we’ve had a lot of easterly weather. We have to look at the average high tide.”
Mr. King said the Trustees are considering changing the town code to give them more leeway in determining whether fences are blocking public access to the beach, but he said he was unsure whether any changes would apply to Ms. Rivera’s fence, which might be grandfathered in because she already has a permit.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare for us. People like to walk the beach but the public domain is the high water mark seaward,” he said. “In my mind it’s a real bad neighborhood dispute. I don’t know where it’s going to go.”