Long Island is an important centerpiece of the bustling New York metropolitan area on the East Coast of the United States. After all, millions of people live on Long Island, and several of New York City’s major boroughs are nestled in the western head of Long Island just across the East River.
This part of New York is also home to Brooklyn and Queens, two of the major boroughs of the city. Nevertheless, these boroughs are commonly thought of as separate from Long Island proper, where, further out, you’ll find State University at Stony Brook, one of the city’s SUNY colleges. It’s also part of the largest school district in the United States.
Although Long Island sounds like an island due to its name, you might have heard that some legal rules and cases don’t treat this geographic location as an island at all. In fact, even the United States Supreme Court feels this way, having previously asserted that Long Island isn’t really an island at all.
So, what gives? Is Long Island an island? In this article, we will endeavor to answer this question and more. If, however, you have other questions or want to know about our legal services, contact Schwartzapfel Lawyers at 1-516-342-2200 for a free case evaluation.
What Is an Island?
From a geographic perspective, an island is any landmass that is surrounded on all sides by water. This is intuitive. After all, you have to swim or use a boat or bridge to reach an island. Islands can form out of the land in a variety of ways.
- Glaciers can cut islands out of the land over hundreds of thousands or millions of years by depressing soil and sediment.
- Rising ocean levels can cause low-lying land to become flooded, creating islands out of the higher landmasses in the process.
- Volcanic activity can cause sediment and soil to build up underneath the ocean over time, eventually breaching the water and forming dry land.
From a legal perspective, however, definitions aren’t always so simple. Legally speaking, islands have control over their local waterways and coastlines. This can affect jurisdiction for prosecuting or investigating criminal activities, mining rights, and beyond.
For instance, if someone sends a distress signal from just beyond Hawaii’s coasts, the Hawaiian Coast Guard will likely respond. A person has to sail a fair distance away (usually three miles) from Hawaii’s coastline before they are in national or international waters, at which point jurisdiction and legal responsibilities change to federal ones.
These rules aren’t always the same for non-island coastlines. For example, if someone sends a distress call three miles off the coastline of mainland New York, there’s no island authority to respond. Instead, legal responsibilities and jurisdiction fall on the shoulders of the National Coast Guard or the federal government.
Therefore, whether a landmass technically or geographically qualifies as an island will usually affect its legal status as an island. That’s not the case, however, with Long Island!
So, Is Long Island an Island?
Long Island is not an island. As of 1985, the Supreme Court has ruled that Long Island – at least for the purposes of international law – is an “extension of the mainland.” This is ostensibly because the island is integrally related to Manhattan and the Bronx. It’s also closely related to other areas and boroughs of New York City, such as Nassau County, Suffolk County. It’s also connected to the North Shore of New York and can be accessed by ferry from Connecticut.
The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, though it prompted some disagreements from scientists and other government officials. And while the debate continues outside the courts, the 1985 Supreme Court decision was upheld in 2017.
Therefore, Long Island might be considered a geographical island landmass like nearby Fire Island. You can only reach it by boat, bridge, or by swimming. For legal matters, such as criminal prosecution jurisdiction, Long Island is a part of mainland New York.
Why Isn’t Long Island Considered an Island?
To fully grasp why Long Island isn’t an island in the eyes of the law, we have to look back at the Supreme Court case that decided the matter in 1985: United States v. Maine, 469 U.S. 504 (1985).
In a nutshell, this landmark case occurred when the U.S. federal government brought a legal action against the thirteen (13) states that border the Atlantic Ocean. The purpose of the legal action was to determine whether the federal government had exclusive rights to both the seabed and the subsoil underneath the ocean past three geographical miles from every state’s coastline.
Put more simply, the federal government wanted to know if it owned and had the rights to use the soil and “land” beneath the water past three miles from the coast.
Over the case’s duration, the Supreme Court found that the thirteen (13) states did hold interests in the seabeds, but only up to a distance of three geographic miles from respective coastlines. The Supreme Court didn’t fix a precise coastline for any of the affected states.
After the initial decision, a Special Master (a type of legal operative) filed a report to conclude that various Atlantic Sounds constituted a juridical bay according to Article 7(6). It was in this report that it was decided that Long Island was an extension of the New York mainland and the southern headland of the New York Bay.
Understanding the Supreme Court Decision
While the 1985 Supreme Court decision might not make sense to all, there is some legal logic to it.
This is because in both general and legal terms, islands are not normally considered extensions of mainland areas for the purposes of creating the headlands of bays,” according to Justice Harry A. Blackmun. However, this justice stated that, Long Island functions as an extension of the mainland, forming the southern headland” of Block Island Sound.
Furthermore, the court ruled that Long Island counts as a peninsula – thereby making it a part of New York State – even though it is certainly separated from the mainland by water. Why?
Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound are west of a line between Long Island, Watch Hill Point, and Montauk Point. Because of this, both Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound constitute a bay according to the definition of an international treaty previously adopted by the U.S.
Because Long Island is a peninsula jutting off of the continent of North America, the waters of Block Island Sound are a bay, which brings that area under state regulation. This includes surrounding areas and areas within Long Island itself, such as Queens County, the South Shore, Southampton, Oyster Bay, and Hempstead.
Meanwhile, New York officials previously argued that Long Island counts as a part of the mainland thanks to its large size. Long Island is 1401 square miles. In addition, the narrowness of the East River – which separates the New York mainland from Long Island – means that Long Island isn’t very separate from the mainland, though it technically is.
To summarize, Long Island is legally considered to be an extension of the New York State mainland because it’s not that far from the mainland and because its geographic features help to form important bays, which are crucial for commerce and water traffic.
Why Does It Matter Whether Long Island Is an Island?
The issue of whether Long Island counts as an island came up at all because the states of New York and Rhode Island did not agree on who controlled Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound. The states wanted to have the power to regulate fishing and to require state-licensed pilots to be aboard ships that pass through the waterways.
However, the federal government did not agree. If Long Island was an extension of the mainland, Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound would count as inland bays. That would make them controllable by the states instead of open waters controlled by the federal government.
As the states discovered, they had the law on their side. Long Island does not count as an island, so its bay waters are under the control of New York State, not the federal government. It has also allowed the development of a Long Island rail road for commuters, stretching through areas like Jones Beach, Huntington, Smithtown, North Fork, and East Hampton.
That said, the geographical history given in the ruling was flawed. According to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Long Island and its adjacent shoreland share a common geological history. This is not entirely true.
According to various geographical experts, glaciers covered both Long Island and the adjacent shoreline. However, both Manhattan and Long Island are significantly different in terms of their geography. For instance, most of Manhattan’s land consists of exposed bedrock. That bedrock is hundreds of millions of years old.
In contrast, Long Island’s land is primarily loose sand. It did not exist, according to geographers, until it was built up over the last 150,000 years thanks to various ice sheets. Furthermore, Justice Blackmun’s opinion that the East River was too narrow or shallow to be a significant barrier between Long Island and Manhattan was incorrect. Many experts believe that Long Island still counts as an island since it is separated by the mainland due to complex tidal straits.
How Does Long Island’s Status Affect Court Cases?
Regardless of differing opinions, the end result of the Supreme Court’s decision is clear. Long Island is not legally an island. This affects jurisdiction and state control over local waterways, subsoil, and coastline territories.
Since Long Island is not an island, at least in the eyes of the law, New York State has control over Long Island’s local waters. This makes it notably different compared to most other shorelines across the U.S. In fact, for most of the U.S.’s coastlines, the federal government does have jurisdiction past the three-mile mark (although this can vary).
Since New York State retains legal control over Long Island’s bay waters, it also controls the commercial activity that occurs therein. Moreover, its authority in this jurisdiction extends to enforcing law enforcement activities, setting fees and regulations for boaters, and beyond.
Contact Schwartzapfel Lawyers Today
By now you will have discovered that Long Island both is and is not an island. From a geographic and practical standpoint, Long Island is certainly isolated enough to count! However, from a legal standpoint, Long Island is not an island at all, which can affect certain legal cases.
Fortunately, our lawyers are very aware of this unique legal technicality, so we will not be taken off guard when handling any case from Long Island to Manhattan. In fact, we’re well-equipped and ready to assist with any legal case you bring to our attention. We’re knowledgeable personal injury lawyers, auto accident attorneys, and established legal representatives.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this page should be considered legal advice. You should seek the appropriate counsel your situation requires. For more information, call 1-516-342-2200 now!