Cyril’s Fish House, the traffic-stopping hotspot on Napeague, has been front and center at the East Hampton Town Planning Board’s last two meetings, on Nov. 28 and again on Dec. 5, as the board debated whether to recommend a change in its zoning status from residential to neighborhood business, under which a restaurant is an allowed use.
The change would bring Cyril’s into compliance with the zoning code, allowing it to expand legally. The restaurant was cited for over 40 code violations in the past year alone, according to Robert Connolly, an East Hampton Town attorney.
Rezoning would affect not only the lot the building sits on but a vacant one to the west, between Napeague Harbor Road and the restaurant, as well, folding the two properties into one 1.13-acre parcel and allowing for an expanded parking area on the western lot. An expansion from 62 seats to 92 might also be allowed, although a number of variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals would probably still be needed.
Cyril’s, which is in a residential zone, is allowed to operate as a restaurant because it was doing so before current zoning rules prohibited it, giving it a special status. However, under such nonconforming status, expansion of the site is not allowed.
In May 2009 the town’s chief building inspector, Don Sharkey, who has since died, told town attorneys and the planning and code enforcement departments that expansion had taken place on the property. He counted 15 structures built without site plan approval or building permits and lacking valid certificates of occupancy, naming several seating areas, a reach-in cooler, a propane tank, and storage trailers, among others.
Both lots in question are owned by Michael Dioguardi, who has leased the restaurant parcel to Cyril Fitzgerald for many years. The site has been developed since at least 1960. In 1969, according to town records, a C of O was issued for a “one-story frame restaurant and gas station” with a gravel patio.
The gas pumps are long since gone, but the site has housed a restaurant, in one guise or another, ever since. It has changed names several times, from Fish ’n’ Chips in 1972 to Skipper’s Galley in 1984, to Beach House in 1989, finally becoming Cyril’s in 1990. Always popular, Cyril’s now draws so many 20 and 30-something patrons that it stops traffic on summer afternoons, as motorists brake to a halt on a road with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour in order to allow people to cross the highway. Cars park up and down the shoulder of Route 27, often a quarter-mile or more away.
If the planning board recommends it and the town board approves, Mr. Dioguardi intends to situate the restaurant farther back from the highway and add 37 parking spots to the west, on the back half of the combined lots. He would also install a new sanitary system; the current septic system is considered outdated.
The plan has been in the works for several years. In 2010 Eric Schantz, then a member of the Planning Department, weighed the pluses and minuses of a change in zoning and suggested that it might, all things considered, be for the good. Among possible benefits, he wrote, were “safety, both for the patrons and motorists on Montauk Highway,” and the possible reduction of “the impact of the site on the adjacent protected natural features, most notably the expansive freshwater wetlands present.”
He concluded, however, with a warning: “Any zone change approval
. . . which is solely based upon the fact that a pre-existing use is nonconforming to current zoning would establish a precedent that could adversely impact many other neighborhoods.”
There is indeed a precedent for the planning board to consider. In 2003, the town agreed to provide the same zone change for the land upon which the Lobster Roll, another destination dining spot on Napeague, sits. However, in that case, no expansion of the restaurant was contemplated. Instead, the town received land for preservation and the Lobster Roll was allowed to improve its parking facilities, as well as widen its entrance and exit onto Montauk Highway.
The planning board tabled the matter for a week to allow members to mull over the documents involved, before holding a final debate on Dec. 5. Robert Schaeffer, a board member, began the discussion.
“There are some sanitary issues,” he said, noting that as part of the proposal the owner would be installing a new septic system. And, he said, “rezoning can restore it to its intended use.”
Reed Jones, the board chairman, while calling himself “pro-business,” nevertheless said he was opposed to rezoning. “I don’t think it is fair to compare this to the Lobster Roll,” he said. “If you grant rezoning it could lead to expansion of use.”
“It’s a dangerous site. We all want to correct that,” said J.P. Foster. “Now they’re trying to grow it by another 30 seats.”
Diana Weir disagreed with Mr. Foster. “I don’t think it does anything but give us more control” over the number of seats in the restaurant, she said.
Ian Calder-Piedmonte also embraced the proposal. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said, calling Cyril’s “sort of an East End tradition.” He reiterated Mr. Schaeffer’s view that the town would get, in return for the zoning change, improved parking and sanitary conditions.
But Nancy Keeshan, who drives past Cyril’s almost daily on her way from her home in East Hampton to her real estate business in Montauk, strongly disagreed. “I enjoy a daiquiri as much as the next girl,” she told the board, smiling, but said that approving the zoning change would be akin to approving the current status quo.
The board split down the middle when it came time to vote, voting three in favor, three opposed. Ms. Weir, Mr. Calder-Piedmonte, and Mr. Schaeffer voted to recommend approval. The seventh board member, Patrick Schutte, was unable to attend the meeting. In the end, the board agreed to draft a letter to the town board giving the reasoning behind both pros and cons.
The planning board’s recommendation is necessary before the town can act on the change. The town board can take the zoning change up at its own discretion, once it receives the planning board’s letter.
Members of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee, had they been members of the planning board instead, would almost certainly have sent a less evenly divided letter to the town board. At their meeting Monday night, members of the committee spoke forcefully about what they consider egregious code violations, a dangerous traffic situation, and, chiefly, Cyril’s impact on the environment, despite the perceived advantages of a rezoning — a greater ability to enforce code, added parking for the always-crowded business, and improved sanitation.
Thirty more seats, or a dozen additional parking spaces, were negligible, committee members felt, in the context of the several hundred patrons who routinely crowd the front of the restaurant. “It’s not the 60 or 90 people sitting, it’s the thousand people standing,” said Britton Bistrian.
Cyril’s outmoded septic system is a critical component, said Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, the committee’s liaison to the town board, citing the parcel’s close proximity to Napeague Harbor, and Kieran Brew, the chairman, pointed out that the western lot would be used for a new system.
Cyril’s is located in a FEMA flood zone, noted Sheila Okin, the vice chairwoman, with a shallow depth of groundwater. “The sanitary flow will exceed what is allowable by the County Health Department,” she said.
John Broderick voiced concern that Cyril’s might exploit the Lobster Roll precedent. “The precedent is an important issue,” he said. “They’re using [it.]” Of the restaurant’s numerous code violations, Mr. Broderick added, “There’s so little enforcement as it is. These are critical, egregious violations. At what point do those violations become a shutdown issue?”
Ms. Overby reminded the committee that the town board might elect not to consider the proposal to rezone. In any event, she said, if the board does decide to take it up, there will be a hearing.
Members pondered making a recommendation to the town board. “I really feel we should make a recommendation,” Ms. Okin said. “It’s serious.” But Ms. Overby responded that a recommendation at this juncture was premature.
However ACAC members felt about the proposal, said Mr. Brew, “Cyril’s is not going away. We have to find a way to deal with it.”
And whatever the town board decides, said Ms. Overby, “the gorilla in the room is, it’s still going to be a mess.”
by Christopher Walsh