Being ‘sue happy’ is the last thing Mattituck resident Christine Rivera said she wants to be known for around town.
But two lawsuits later and that’s the reputation she’s developed over recent years — all for the protection of her beachfront property rights just west of the Mattituck Inlet on the Long Island Sound, she says.
“Of course I don’t enjoy taking people to court — it’s exorbitantly expensive,” she said. “But you can only ask someone nicely time and time again to not trespass. When they don’t listen, I’ve felt that my only option is to take them to court.”
Rivera, who has lived full-time with her husband, Richard, in an elaborate home at the end of Inlet Drive since 1997, is referring to her Rivera said that she because he she just wanted to be left alone.
“I’ve known Paul for 35 years,” Rivera said. “But he was not only going on the beach, he was leaving his chairs and umbrellas — it was non-stop.”
The day before the Calabro trail ended, Rivera said that workers from removed a decorative boulder, which had sat for years along a roadside berm on Inlet Drive. Rivera says the rock was on her property; Southold Town Supervisor Russell has said that the rock was located well within Town property and was blocking a public path to a town-owned section of beach. The Riveras have filed suit in federal court seeking $1 million in damages from the town over this latest dispute.
Rivera said she feels like there was a lot of political pressure on the Town during the Calabro trial to remove the rock. She said that the last time that particular rock was mentioned was in 2007, when Russell told her that rock was blocking a town right of way.
“He said he had a survey that proved the rock was on Town property, but I never saw that survey,” Rivera said. “Then I never heard another word about it until the day before the trial was over when they came and removed it.”
Rivera said she stands by her claim and her own survey that the rock was on her property. Scott Russell declined to comment on the pending lawsuit nor did he send North Fork Patch the 2007 survey Rivera had spoken about. During a Southold Town Board meeting on Jan. 17, the board voted to pass a resolution to have a $900 survey of the Inlet Drive road end prepared.
But Rivera, who has earned a living with her husband in the construction business, said that no rock on earth is worth $1 million — and she says that since the mid-1950s, when her family would travel from Rockville Centre to summer on the same property next to, the neighborhood was always very friendly.
The root of the ongoing conflict, she says, has taken hold because her front yard beach has expanded over the years by accretion, the gradual accumulation of sand, not avulsion, which is "the sudden movement of soil from one property to another as a result of a flood or a shift in the course of a boundary stream,” according to dictionary.com
And this point was key in Rivera’s first lawsuit regarding the property against New York State in 2006, according to her attorney, Jonathan Sinnreich.
“If a hurricane were to dump a lot of sand overnight, then the state does not lose the land,” he said. “But if it expands gradually by accretion, the property owner gets it. We just want people to understand why this whole dispute exists at all.”
Sinnreich said that with the accretion of beach comes the shifting of the mean high water line — the boundary that separates public beach from private property under state law.
“And this line has shifted on several beachfront properties here, not just Rivera’s,” he said.
Despite arguments that the state did not defend their position that Rivera owns the accreted beachfront, Sinnreich provided this statement from state attorney Henry DeCotis after the first lawsuit in 2006:
“Please be advised that I have reviewed the judgment and survey map which you have recently sent me. After confiring with the Office of General Services [sic], they agree that the land in question in the above matter was formed by accretion and therefore the state has no title interest in this matter. As a result, I have no objection to the substance of the draft judgment you have sent to me and have no objection to its filing with the court in the above matter.”
“The state did not drop the ball in 2006 — they looked at the issue and agreed with our position,” Sinnreich said. “It is often misinterpreted that this beach belongs to everyone — but it doesn’t. I think a lot of people are jealous of that, and a lot of people are angry that Chris has stood up for herself.”
In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a study of the behavior of sand flow around the Mattituck Inlet. The “Section 111 Study,” (see attched PDF document), which was amended in July 2010, analyzes the affects of mining sand from neighboring Breakwater Beach, which is owned by the, and from private properties along the beach to the west of the inlet jetty — including the front yard of the Riveras — in order to fill in the eroded to the east of the jetty.
Rivera said that she was against allowing that mining, because in 1956, the Mattituck Park District mined the beach to the west of the jetty. As a result, she said, her neighborhood lost 80 feet of beach — and the Long Island Sound was at their doorsteps.
“And now they want to remove 100,000 cubic feet of beach in one shot,” Rivera said. “That would decimate our beach — and I cannot believe that the town and the park district would not be worried losing that much of Breakwater.”
And as far as this latest lawsuit goes, Rivera and her lawyer reiterate that she just wants her property rights respected.
“Who wants to sue over a rock?” Sinnreich said. “We’re not suing over a rock — were suing because her 5th Amendment rights have been violated once again. The Town came onto her property and took something without her permission. If it had been anyone else, they would have been arrested.”
Sinnreich said he expects legal counsel representing Southold Town to respond to the lawsuit by February.