North Fork Outdoors: Dealing with land, beach rights

December articles in The Suffolk Times about the Rivera beachfront case brought back lots of personal memories about similar conflicts over land and beach rights. Fishing along beaches and hunting in coverts through our lifetime almost always required access through or around someone’s private property. Exceptions were excursions or expeditions in parks with public access or on lands that we owned ourselves, like lakefront family property or our current “farm” in Clinton County.

That disputes should arise is only natural. That disputes cannot be resolved without bitterness and court battles is a sad consequence of our time and its culture.

It has long been a highlight of state law (the so-called Public Trust Doctrine) that, as Beth Young wrote on Dec. 15, “the beach below the high water mark is public property.” Reaching the beach may be difficult, of course, but every surf jockey rightfully assumes if he or she has access at some spot somewhere, he or she can follow that high water line all the way out to Orient, if desired.

In a bygone era when many beach rats operated in a more stealthy fashion, a few anglers here and there were the norm once the word got out that fish were “in.” Today in a twitter storm of hand-held devices, nothing seems to be “secret,” and mobs build on the very next tidal cycle, so it seems. Suddenly there are cars parked along every access road and there are always a few louts who “mess up” a beach with their leavings, plastics … or worse. (Lack of public rest areas is a subject best left for another column.) It’s little wonder some property owners get defensive, even belligerent, when any “outsider” comes to their doorstep.

Disputes over access to lands for any kind of hunting are worse than disputes over access to water. As rural areas get carved into “exurbs,” open land disappears and every scrap of land without a house or two (or 22) becomes precious for those who can hunt it. Everything everywhere is posted.

When we first hunted the Forks more than 30 years ago, you could walk certain rights of way and either access un-posted property or, better, you would find an adjacent house and ask permission to train dogs or chase quail and rabbits. More often than not, permission was granted. Often, the larger the tract of land, the more reasonable and generous the landowner. On one November opening day years ago, a friend and I found our way onto a big area of weeds and scrub adjacent to some large Calverton potato farms. We had come onto the property off the Long Island Rail Road tracks, so there were no signs facing the tracks; however, with a pair of woodcock and quail in our bags and our Brittanys by our side, we weren’t surprised when the owner of the farms rolled up in an old International Scout. He was annoyed at first, but, when we apologized for not having found his house to ask permission, then offered to leave, he warmed to the conversation. We wound up with permission to hunt that season (and for years afterwards), provided we stopped by to leave word that we were gunning the property. It turned into a wonderful and reliable place to hunt rabbits with beagles, too.

Most times, you’re best off introducing yourself and dressing “presentably” on a day when you’re not engaged in an outdoor activity. One surf sharpie who was a professor at New York Tech always cultivated Soundfront property owners during the off-season, and, through the years, wound up with permission to park in their driveways when he fished beaches, especially on the West End, during odd hours. It goes without saying that you show your gratitude for “property privileges” by sending Christmas cards and dropping off fresh fish or game from a successful outing.

Unfortunately we live at a time when pressure from the 20 million who use our coastal area leads to competition and bitterness over land and water use, especially along Long Island Sound. When it becomes virtually impossible to get permission to gain access to most areas you would like to fish or hunt or walk, much of the pleasure derived from the activities disappears. At that point you either give up the activities entirely or head for the few remote areas of the country (or the world) where you can still enjoy them.

Correction: In our Christmas column we gave the wrong angle for the noon sun during winter solstice. Around Long Island (roughly 41 degrees north), the noon sun is actually about 25.5 degrees above the horizon, not “less than 23 degrees” as we wrote. The latter is the angle for 44 north latitude. To calculate exactly, use: sun angle above the southern horizon at noon = (90 minus (23.5 degrees + Latitude)). The 23.5 degrees come from the tilt of the earth’s axis, of course.