After the last summer season, when weekend fun at popular bars and restaurants regularly resulted in a tide of complaints by residents overwhelmed by noise, crowds, and traffic, particularly in Montauk, East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley has been working on legislation designed to limit the numbers of people that can gather outside at those spots, and hopes to get it in place before the cycle begins again.
Under her proposal, being developed with Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, town attorneys, police, and other town officials, businesses offering live or amplified music would be required to obtain an “entertainment permit,” which would replace the current system of music permits.
The new permit would set a maximum number of attendees, determined by the fire marshal individually for each establishment, and prescribe where they could gather, hours of operation, and other details.
“A violation would lead to the potential for the town to get an injunction” shutting down a continually offending business, Ms. Quigley said Tuesday. Limits on the town’s ability to obtain an injunction when a business continually violates aspects of the town code have frustrated residents and town officials in dealing with problematic clubs, such as Montauk’s Surf Lodge, which remained open despite amassing over 680 citations last summer.
An entertainment permit law could be passed right away, Ms. Quigley said at the board’s meeting earlier this week, and other provisions, such as occupancy limits tied to septic system capacity, adopted later.
“I’m looking for a way to have it happen, but have it happen in a controlled way,” Ms. Quigley said of summertime outdoor music and other activities.
But Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, a former planning board member, questioned her approach. “The approach that we’re taking — it seems to me this will allow for an illegal expansion of use,” he said.
“To say that kind of activity is a right, that has not been proven,” he said. Before the planning board issues a site plan approval for a business, he noted, it determines whether there is adequate parking, for instance, for the number of patrons expected, based on restaurant tables and other factors.
And, he said, the County Health Department approves septic systems based on their ability to accommodate a maximum number of people. “The whole idea is that you have a certain capacity based on how things are.”
“If you’re going to regularly exceed that,” it raises a number of problems, he said. “If somebody wants to do more . . . that would be an expansion of use” either requiring new approvals, or it would be disallowed in certain spots such as residential areas where businesses might be pre-existing, nonconforming uses that predate zoning and thus are allowed to continue but not expand.
According to the draft legislation presented by Ms. Quigley, the number of people allowed to gather outdoors at a particular site could not exceed one person per seven square feet of “usable space,” with that definition to be spelled out.
On a quarter-acre, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby commented, that could equal 1,500 people.
“What you’re saying is people can’t have people outside,” Ms. Quigley said. “I believe that people should be able to have people outside.”
“I agree with that,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “but it shouldn’t be able to impinge on other people’s rights to enjoy the outside.”
“We’re a tourist economy; we must provide for them,” Ms. Quigley said. “I see this in a bigger picture, not just [about] overcrowding,” she said.
The board must balance the needs of the entire community, Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We balance, eight months of the year we balance,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson replied.
Besides being a tourist destination, Ms. Overby said, East Hampton is also a second-homeowner community. “They want a place that is quiet, and they’re not going to spend their money out here if they can’t have quiet enjoyment.”
“That may be our generation, Sylvia,” Ms. Quigley said. “But there is another generation that wants to go out.”
Ms. Quigley said she had taken the entertainment permit approach because the town attorney had informed the board that there was no existing town code provision through which it could control the numbers of people in the outdoor areas of businesses.
But Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he believes the outdoor gatherings held at some bars and restaurants are activities for which the owners should have to seek individual mass gathering permits from the town board.
“This is a more liberal ability for the business owner,” Ms. Quigley said of her proposal.
With the number of complaints last year, the board would have begun enforcement actions against offending businesses if possible, she said. “I’m hearing our attorneys saying there’s nothing illegal about the use.”
“I have a problem with rejecting counsel’s advice,” said Councilman Dominick Stanzione. “The legal department has rendered an opinion; it’s not mine to question,” Supervisor Wilkinson said.
“I’m not rejecting what counsel has said,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “but I do understand that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, if you will; different approaches to solving a problem.”
Instead of the “codification-legalization, if you will” of what’s been happening, “perhaps there are ways to reduce the impacts,” he said.
“I don’t want to find ourselves in two months with nothing,” Ms. Quigley said.