Your Tax Dollars at “Work”: State of New York and Town of Oyster Bay Litigate Ownership of Underwater Property

This was originally published on the SGR blog.

Brian Murphy was cited by the Town of Oyster Bay for shellfishing without a permit. Murphy was fishing in waters around the maritime boundary between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound, ownership of which was claimed by both the Town and the State. Murphy filed suit against the Town, the State, and others. He sought a judgment declaring that the Town-issued citation was invalid because he was shellfishing in Long Island Sound, for which he had an appropriate permit from the State.

The State of New York sued the Town of Oyster Bay for a judgment declaring that the State was the owner of the disputed underwater property. Supreme Court, Nassau County, granted the State’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Town’s motion for summary judgment. And declared that the boundary line between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound was the line running east from Rocky Point in Oyster Bay to Whitewood Point on Lloyd’s Neck; and that the  State of New York owned all of the underwater lands north of that line.

The Town’s borders are rooted in a colonial patent that Governor General Edmund Andros issued to the Town’s predecessors-in-interest in 1677. The Andros Patent granted all land in an area “Bounded on the North by the Sound, on the East by the Huntington Limmits on the South part by the sea and part by Hempstead Limmits, and on the West by the Bounds of Hempstead aforesaid.” There was no dispute that this language established that Oyster Bay, which is coextensive with the Town’s northern maritime border, extended at least as far as an imaginary line running due east from Rocky Point.

The State argued that the border between Long Island Sound and Oyster Bay was an imaginary geodesic line connecting headlands located at Rocky Point and Whitewood Point. The Town argued that the proper headlands for defining the border between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound were located farther north at Oak Neck Point and Lloyd Point. Supreme Court agreed with the State and found  that the boundary line between Oyster Bay and Long Island Sound was  the line asserted by the State; and that the State owned all of the underwater lands north of that line. The Town appealed.

The appeals court noted that “in 1776 the State, as the sovereign successor to the English Crown, became the owner of all underwater lands within its jurisdiction, except where the Crown had previously parted with title”.  The Town, as successor-in-interest to the grantees named in the Andros Patent, “owns the underwater land beneath Oyster Bay” The extent of the Town’s ownership depended on the language of the Andros Patent. “Every instrument creating [or] transferring . . . an estate or interest in real property must be construed according to the intent of the parties, so far as such intent can be gathered from the whole instrument, and is consistent with the rules of law’” And ‘[w]here the language used in a deed is ambiguous such that it is susceptible of more than one interpretation, the courts will look beyond the written instrument to the surrounding circumstances’”.

The Andros Patent’s declaration of the northern maritime border was silent as to which headlands defined the extent of “the Sound,” thereby warranting consideration of extrinsic evidence. Despite the potential utility of factual matter like parol evidence or the courses of conduct in the centuries that followed the grant, the Town and the State chose to present only maps depicting undisputed geographic features, lexicographic authorities in support of their competing interpretations of the Andros Patent, and evidence showing they recently asserted competing claims to the waters where Murphy was shellfishing. The  State established that its preferred boundary satisfied the three-part definition of a juridical bay as commonly understood and applied under conventional international law.* The Town’s evidence in opposition consisted for the most part of expert affidavits purporting to apply those same principles, but which demonstrated that the Town’s proposed alternative boundary only satisfied two of the three components necessary for satisfying of the definition of a bay.

Where “a party’s extrinsic evidence demonstrates not only that its interpretation is reasonable but that it is the only fair interpretation’” of ambiguous language, “summary judgment is appropriate” The  Court found that State’s proposed boundary line was the only fair interpretation of the Andros Patent . The record contained no factual matter that might support a different conclusion. For example, the parties submitted no evidence showing some different historical understanding of Oyster Bay or bays more generally, or personal accounts of mariners or other witnesses that, if credited, might support the Town’s proposed headlands. The record that the parties opted to compile in this case simply did not permit more than one inference as to the appropriate boundary line. Thus, contrary to the Town’s arguments on appeal, the Supreme Court appropriately resolved the dispute in favor of the State as a matter of law.

  • In 1985, the United States Supreme Court followed an objective standard—the “45-degree test” —“to assist in selecting the natural entrance points to a bay.” “[The test] requires that two opposing mainland-headpoints be selected and a closing line be drawn between them.  Another line is then drawn from each selected headland and the next landward headland on the same side. If the resulting angle between the initially selected closing line and the line drawn to the inland headland is less than 45 degrees, a new inner headland is selected and the measurement is repeated until both the mainland-headlands pass the test.”

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