Property Rights Foundation of America®

Speech from Proceedings of the Third Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(1998)

Founding a New Municipality
Gary Vegliante
Mayor, Village of Westhampton Dunes, Westhampton Beach

Good morning, everyone. It's surely a pleasure to be here. Unfortunately, it's saddening in some respects that much of what I've heard today did not shock me. They always say that you should start a presentation with a little humor. Well, I'll start mine by saying, did you hear the one about the 331 families who went to work one morning and they returned to find a government agency had constructed a barricade preventing them from going back into their homes, and literally putting marshals there to stop us from going back. That's what started this entire journey down the road to where we have become a government, so to speak.

In the world of government enterprise if you are an optimist, you can look at my recent election as the landslide, unanimous victory. If you're a pessimist, and the glass is only half empty, you can say that I won by a very close margin of 28 votes. The reason is that I ran unopposed. My residents were not able to live in the homes they had at the time of the election and many of them had to travel over 100 miles to come to vote. So we raised about 280 votes, everyone knowing that no one else was going to show up. Luckily none of the local officials ran, because they would have won.

I'm not an attorney, but I have learned to understand some of the legislative process. The truth of the matter is this, and it's been said over and over again, what would happen is that the larger politicians get an idea, they have a legislative meeting, they pass laws, those laws have a legislative intent. Some of them are benign, they're even very helpful in their belief. What happens, now, is that the trickle-down to regulatory agencies is where you run into serious problems. If the legislation itself is benign or good, it can often be corrupted, and absolutely perverted, by the time it gets to the people.

The way that happens is that you have government employees, public servants, imposing their philosophical views and changing the legislative intent by virtue of the permitting process, and that happens to us every day of the year. When you hear you need a permit, there will be an opportunity for what will become regulatory extortion. There will be conditions on those permits that will absolutely abdicate your rights. It will take them away, it will destroy them immediately.

I deal with the DEC on a daily basis. We have 331 families on a barrier island. We are surrounded by water. When you look south of us, there is nothing but water. As a matter of fact, we watched 191 of those homes fall in one by one while the government agencies told us there is nothing we could do, there is nothing they can do. This is one of the things that I have to tell you: If you start to believe your critics during these battles — and they are battles, they are at war — they win. Don't ever believe what they say. We proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the erosion we had was not a natural erosion. It had a political cause. They had built these groins, or jetties, upstream of us, cutting up the downflow of water, cutting off the downflow of sand, the littoral flow of sand, literally starving our beaches. A beach and an area which never had suffered erosion at all, which actually had experienced accretion, now started to lose sand erosion at 10-20 times the natural rate, so that home after home started falling in, while the government politely sat back and said that, regardless of what they do, they're losing their homes on a daily basis. They'll die a natural death. So wait them out.

So that's what they did. They did it for over ten years. They waited us out. They petitioned the courts. They moved for adjournments. We had, unfortunately, a case in front of the oldest sitting judge in America. Judge Bartell is a lovely man, but certainly did not want to make a decision contrary to the federal government, and sat and sat and sat. We were very near death, absolutely and totally gone. We couldn't raise money. There was a private property landowners' group literally going door to door. Erosion was burying houses, literally.
And they were right. The government was there. They said, They'll be gone. Another forty homes, it's over.

The fact of the matter is that what we started to realize was, get into the process and you can beat them. What we did was, we went out and we immediately registered 289 voters, exactly. We then petitioned the State to create us our own village municipality. That did three things for us. First of all, it secured our position with the attorneys. I have to be frank; the attorneys are motivated by where they go, and, of course, by paying the bills. The fact of the matter was that the homeowners group was in an area where the homes were literally washed away and gone. There was no equity position for the lawyers to continue the lawsuit, although they did. It was amazing how they kept it up and we really did finance it, but it was getting very close to the end where we were very deeply in debt and there was no hope.

So by creating a village municipality, that had a tax base. Regardless of how it looks, it had a tax base to insure the payment of bills. It really invigorated the legal action.

On the second base, it gave us immediate access to sort of the club, to the government process. I am now a mayor. When a mayor calls a government agency, there's a protocol that has to be met. If it's not, I have recourse. When a homeowners association officer calls, he gets a very polite hello and a very polite collapse. As soon as that phone goes down, that message goes nowhere. Well, as a mayor, as part of this process, you now are involved with a protocol and an ability to access higher levels of government, and, of course, it is the club mentality that now you're one of them.

We are under assault by virtually every agency that exists. They do it time and time again. I'll give you just a few quick instances. By the time we'd come to our incorporation—that was on Nov. 19, 1993—we had battled this case literally for about fourteen years and vigorously for the last five. It was an incredible case with a precedent-setting issue. The bottom line was, we became a village on November 19, 1993. We were offered a settlement by December 12 of the same year. We got five depositions, five guys, five government officials into the seat with their right hand raised, and we had a settlement just prior to having Gail Shaffer, the then-Secretary of State, and the Governor, Mario Cuomo, coming down, subpoenaed to sit in our chair and give testimony. It ended there.

The settlement was awesome. We did very well. We got federal intervention to nourish this beach, rebuild it, actually reconnect it. There was a 3,200 foot breach opened up during the storm that ate ninety homes, that separated, literally, one end of the island from the other. We got them to fill in that breach. We also got them to rebuild and nourish the beach and to guarantee that the beach will meet a standard for the next thirty years by the federal government, unprecedented and unbelieved among all levels of government.

But we also had to insure that we were not later going to be tricked by other regulatory agencies. So we made the DEC insure that they would do nothing to prohibit the rebuilding of any home in a viable lot in the village. We got the Board of Health from the Suffolk County in the settlement to also agree that they would do nothing to stop us.

We've been into court three times, actually four times today, bringing back the settlement, just so that these officials can read what it says, because they constantly undermine it. They will undermine it with every regulatory control they can find. Any condition they can put to a permit they will. So the permitting process gives them access to destroy your rights on a daily basis. Remember this.

As they say, documentation is the most essential of all ingredients. This was a court-ordered, federally agreed-to stipulation. And at that stipulation, the judge had a very clear attitude. Judge Bartell happened to retire. We were then reassigned to a much more aggressive judge. And that judge said at the closing of that stipulation—he looked over and pulled his glasses down—he said, Let me tell you, Mr. Government Agencies, every one of you, if any of you have to return to this bench to be re-advised of this stipulation, somebody better bring an overnight bag because I don't take kindly to contempt in my court.

Well, we have been this close to the door, four times since then and that's with a hard document saying they could not do what they were doing. The conditions of permitting destroy every level of your ability to access and quiet enjoyment of your property.

But the bottom line is, we now have a flourishing village. There are 331 lots. People are building homes. If you come into our village for a building permit, you actually will be given a permit probably in less than two weeks. If you need a zoning variance for any possible reason — and we have designed our ordinance to be very builder-oriented, family oriented, so we can get people back into their homes — it can be done in one month. This can be done because we are a concentrated, small village. With the village government the families have the right and the ability to access the government. I get calls in the middle of the night all the time when something's wrong, because they know where the mayor lives.

Governments can work. They need to be separated from the political system. Very simply, village governments don't have a great deal to do with national and local politics. We don't really get funded by any sort of Republican Committee. We don't get funded by the National Committee. We don't get funded at all. We do it on our own.

It's a very pleasant way to live, provided the government doesn't get corrupted by its own power. That's something we have to watch out for. It happens every day.

Make sure that when the permit process gets in place, if your rights are violated, you take them to task. You do it by registering voters. You do it by making public statements. You do it by going to the press. And you do it by going to meetings. Don't let them do it without you being there.

Thank you very much.

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