For 20 years, local folks have been battling over just who has the right to use a sliver of Hudson River waterfront that had been the site of Native American encampments for 6,000 years.
In the latest iteration of the public access battle, Friends of Wickers Creek Archeological Site has sued the Landing on the Water at Dobbs Ferry Homeowners Association.
The Friends of Wickers Creek lawsuit filed in Westchester Supreme Court claims that conservation easements and a court order allow “public access to wild, undeveloped and archaeologically significant lands” owned by the condo association.
The homeowners argue that Friends of Wickers Creek has no right to access to a footbridge that spans the Metro-North Railroad tracks and connects the condo development to a beach. The association has acknowledged that the bridge foundations at both ends are on land governed by easements, but it said the bridge itself is not part of the easements.
The 43-acre condo property is between Mercy College and Wickers Creek.
Several Native American cultures have used the site over the centuries, beginning around 4500 BC, to exploit the land and water for hunting and fishing. As recently as the 1600s, the Weckquaesgeeks maintained a village on Wickers Creek.
Archaeologists have discovered thousands of tools and other artifacts in the shell middens, the debris left behind by inhabitants who consumed oysters from the river.
Friends of Wickers Creek was formed in 1988 to protect the site from developers. In 1998, the village approved a site plan for 104 condos, submitted by Cappelli Enterprises. The developer was required to preserve the area around the creek and a small beach and to allow access to the land.
The conservationist sued to stop the project. The developer sued the conservationist for libel. In 2000, they settled.
The property owners agreed to maintain the bridge and to create easements allowing access by the general public to several parcels. The agreement was later amended, allowing access only to village residents during daylight hours.
The bridge is the only public access to the beach. In 2014, the condo association placed a gate on the east end of the bridge. The following year, a lock was installed, and only people with a key fob could get through.
Last year, the village of Dobbs Ferry sued the condo association, claiming that it had violated the easements, the 2000 agreement and the zoning code.
The village claims that the Landing on the Water did not get written permission to install the gate or lock. The condo association said that the mayor consented to the gate and lock, officials were notified of the plans and no one objected when they were installed.
While the village’s case is pending, the condo association has agreed to keep the gate unlocked during the day.
Two months ago, the Pace University environmental litigation clinic, acting on behalf of the conservation group, put the homeowners on notice.
“The actions you have taken to restrict public access – namely installing and locking a gate on the footbridge – are a clear breach of your offering plan and our contract,” the letter states. “The beach and midden area are of great cultural, historical and environmental importance to the public.”
It would be impossible to distribute key fobs to every member of the general public, the letter states, and is contrary to court mandates and the spirit of their contract.
The homeowners’ attorney, Jon Kolbrener, responded that easements grant access only to the village and not to any member of the public or to members of the Friends of Wicker Creek who do not live in Dobbs Ferry.
The bridge is not included in the easement, he said, and only residents of the Landing on the Water have the right to use it.
Moreover, there has been a history of people trespassing to gain access to the waterfront, he said, and of people engaging in disruptive activities on the condo property. The Landing, he said, took steps to enforce its rights under the easement.
If the homeowners prevail in the village’s lawsuit, the Friends of Wickers Creek lawsuit states, the Landing will resume locking the gate to the bridge.
The Friends of Wickers Creek is asking the court to declare that the condo association may not lock the gate during the day or block access to the bridge.