Editorial: Our shore or their shore?

Leave it to the state to make a mess of things.

The mess in this case is the dispute over public access to a stretch of Soundfront shore in Mattituck, a dispute that’s made its way to the halls of the State Supreme Court. A Mattituck homeowner seeking to secure her privacy has filed a civil action against a neighbor, an elderly man who strolled the beach below the high water mark.

But in this case, homeowners Christine and Richard Rivera sued in 2997 for ownership of that part of beach in front of their property that’s built up over time. When the state failed to mount a defense, the Riveras won by default and have since taken steps to prevent the public from passing by. The most dramatic example of that is their litigation against a neighbor, Paul Calabro, who they accuse of trespassing. Although the town police were called in, no charges were brought against Mr. Calabro.

Both sides were scheduled to appear before a judge in Riverhead yesterday (Wednesday.)

The case is being closely watched for its precedent-setting potential. It’s unusual in that the shoreline closest to the waters edge has long been considered public space, much to the chagrin of countless beachfront residents on both forks.

Some years back oceanfront residents of Dune Road in Westhampton Beach sued the owner of a nearby bar on the bay side of the road after he purchased a 10-foot-wide strip across the dunes and offered beach access by directing customers to keep to that path and enjoy the beach, as long as they stayed on the water side of the high water mark. The court upheld the public’s right to enjoy the beach, but slapped the barkeep for illegally creating a business atmosphere in a residential area.

Robins Island, which separates Great and Little Peconic Bays, is one obvious exception to what’s known as the state Public Trust Doctrine. The owner enjoy “riparian rights,” the ownership of underwater lands up to 200 feet from shore, but only through a 19th Century act of the State Legislature.

If it achieves nothing else, perhaps Rivera vs. Calabro will settle the matter once and for all.