Landmark Case

Town of Oyster Bay v. Commander Oil

Landmark Case

The right of Commander Oil to perform maintenance dredging needed to ensure that boats and barges could safely continue oil delivery to this facility was challenged by the Town of Oyster Bay.

Commander Oil owned a petroleum storage facility in Oyster Bay Harbor since 1929. For decades it had routinely dredged the east and west basins of its dock to permit safe access for barges. But in the 1990s, the Town of Oyster Bay sued Commander Oil to stop the dredging.

The New York Supreme Court ruled that the Town had no right to stop the dredging because Commander’s riparian rights to the harbor included the right to routine maintenance dredging. On appeal, the Town won a new hearing.

After a rehearing, the Supreme Court again ruled in Commander’s favor, and the Town again appealed. The Appellate Division reversed the ruling, holding that Commander had no riparian right to conduct routine maintenance dredging and that dredging was not permitted without the Town’s permission.

Commander appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that “a riparian owner may dredge if dredging is necessary to preserve reasonable access to navigable water and does not unreasonably interfere with the rights of the underwater owner.” At the core of the Court’s decision was the interpretation and applicability of a century old precedent in Hedges v W. S. R. Co., 150 NY 150 [1896]. The Commander Oil case was the first in New York State to hold that riparian rights include the right to conduct maintenance dredging.

By enabling Commander Oil to continue dredging the harbors for maintenance as needed for its operations in Oyster Bay Harbor, Damadeo won incalculable economic and social benefits for Commander, the many retail petroleum resellers it served, and area consumers whose lives depend on having readily available, affordable petroleum products.