Take Aim at Nightspots

Town hopes to put limits on outdoor occupancy

    The East Hampton Town Board is trying to close what its members describe as a loophole in town law that fails to limit the number of people that can be on patios, lawns, or beaches at restaurants and nightspots. The aim is to alleviate the stress on Montauk residents from several popular clubs that have been attracting hordes.
    Town Councilwoman Julia Prince, who had pleaded with her colleagues on the board last week to take legal action, reported at a board meeting on Tuesday that neither of the two most problematic establishments — the Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s — had amassed enough town code violations to support a request to a Supreme Court judge for an injunction to shut them down.
    While maximum indoor occupancy is set by fire code regulations, the traffic, parking, noise, and other problems that neighbors have been complaining about is engendered by crowds that exceed those limits and congregate outdoors.
    Councilwoman Theresa Quigley announced Tuesday that the town attorneys had begun to research “a formula for, in some way, restricting the use of the outdoors . . . to get some level of control over what’s happening.”
    The Town of Southold, she said, where wineries often hold outdoor events, requires specific mass-gathering permits from the town whenever the number of people expected, either indoors or out, will exceed the maximum indoor occupancy set by the fire marshal.
     In East Hampton, the town board signs off on mass-gathering permits, but they are not required for everyday occasions at commercial businesses, even though troublesome gatherings have become routine at a number of places.
     Ms. Quigley, a lawyer, said that, although the state fire code only regulates congregations of people indoors, it nevertheless might be called into play. The state code sets standards for exits from interior spaces, which, she said, could perhaps be used to apply to gates or other entries and exits that funnel people in and out of outside areas. She said she also found a Suffolk County Department of Health law that regulates the number of people who can swim in a particular area based on to the square footage of surface water.
    Councilwoman Prince’s plea last week for the board to take a tougher stance as Montauk residents in particular feel the effects of a summertime party atmosphere, prompted comments at Tuesday’s meeting from Sylvia Overby, a Democratic candidate for town board.
    “This is becoming the difference between being a family-friendly atmosphere and being Coney Island,” Ms. Overby said. Some residents, she said, who rent their houses out in summer to try to make ends meet, will feel the effects if it becomes difficult to find tenants due to the disruptions in residential neighborhoods.
    Ms. Prince reiterated comments she made last week, about how a town law passed in recent years making all restaurants and bars eligible for permits allowing live music had changed the scene at many of them, exacerbating their negative impacts. She suggested that the board discuss issuing music permits only to establishments in commercial districts, eliminating live music at places in residential zones.
    “The biggest problem is the overcrowding of these places,” said Councilman Pete Hammerle, who was a board member when the music permit legislation was passed. “These places used to be small, low-key places to go have dinner. Now they’re being exploited to their fullest.”
    When the matter of enforcement of existing laws came up, Ms. Quigley noted that some of the problematic establishments had received summonses and are in court.
    Ms. Prince, who had asked the board last week to seek injunctions, confirmed that the number of summonses issued for the Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s would not support such requests. And, she said, because many of the summonses issued had been for zoning code, not noise, violations, the town cannot invoke a provision in the law allowing revocation of a music permit after three noise violations occur.
    “It is egregious to have violations written every single day, but they are not the kind of violations that warrant shutting a place down,” Ms. Quigley said.
    “One thing that I respect is jurisdiction,” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said. “So if the court has a jurisdiction over something, I am not getting into it. I think process is more important here than outcome.”    
    Residents in the areas around the cited businesses, many of which predate zoning that would now outlaw them but are grandfathered as pre-existing, should bear with the situation, he suggested. “These locations have been in existence as nightclubs for easily the 60 years I’ve been around,” he said.
    “We’re in the tourism industry,” he continued, referring to the difficult economic climate nationwide. “I think we should have a real big business summit about tourism to discuss what benefits the entire community gets from these things. We have to look at the ripple effect of all these things, because we are a four-month community.”
    The supervisor said in the last week he had received “outraged phone calls” from people who work at the Surf Lodge “or sell pizza to the Surf Lodge,” worried about attempts to shut such places down.
    “I agree with you, but it depends on the kind of tourism you want to attract,” Ms. Overby said. She noted that State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. had said “over and over again, our environment is our economy. You cannot destroy that environment.”
    “We all know we’re a tourist economy,” Ms. Prince said.  “That’s not the issue. Of course we want the businesses to thrive.” 
    “My major complaint is this: You have our resources, the town, writing the same violations for three years to the same owners. As a board, are we willing to take the next step in dealing with businesses that blatantly thumb their noses at the town code?” Councilwoman Prince asked.  Though she said town police and code enforcement officers were doing a good job, the town is “constantly saying, ‘You can’t do this,’ and they keep doing it. That’s what upsets me.”
    “I would hope that code enforcement will continue doing its job and get enough evidence” for an injunction, Ms. Prince said.
    John Jilnicki, the East Hampton Town attorney, said obtaining the kind of injunction Ms. Prince sought would be difficult. “They’re very hard because you’re basically putting someone out of business. You have to show real damage to the town.” He said he could only recall the town’s succeeding at such an effort once, and the injunction was overturned by the court within one day.
    Earlier in the meeting, David Buda, a Springs resident, suggested a ban on another nighttime nuisance — backyard roosters. “I happen to enjoy the roosters,” Ms. Quigley said. “So, Mr. Buda, I am not in favor of a rooster ban. I’m not willing to say to people, you cannot live life the way you want to.”
    “That does not mean I’m in favor of having roosters bother people,” she added.