Plan for Cyril’s Gets Few Cheers

Concerns over crowds and the environment cited at hearing on zone change
Twelve-year-old Oona Darrell stressed the importance of wetlands and a healthy habitat for Napeague wildlife at a town board hearing last Thursday. Morgan McGivern

    A proposed zoning change for the Cyril’s Fish House property on Napeague and an adjacent vacant lot to the west drew a large crowd to East Hampton Town Hall last Thursday night.
    The change would allow the bar and restaurant to use both sites and, potentially, resolve legal problems by obtaining permits for deck and patio areas, storage, and other additions made over the years without permits. Opponents of the proposal outnumbered supporters by about two to one.
    Bonnie and Michael Dioguardi, the property owners, want to bring Cyril’s into compliance with the town code and to address community concerns about safety and environmental problems posed by the summertime crowds there, said Dianne LeVerrier, their attorney. Changing the lots from residential to neighborhood business zoning would be only the first step, she said. No formal proposal has been submitted to the town for review, she said, but future plans call for adding 12 parking spaces on the vacant lot and installing an upgraded septic system. Patrons now milling about on the shoulders of Montauk Highway, who park their cars as much as half a mile away, could be moved to the rear of the property away from traffic, she said.
    The restaurant has been issued dozens of summonses for zoning violations going back almost a decade, Tina Piette, an attorney for Cyril’s, said at the hearing.  As a “pre-existing, nonconforming” use of the land, it is allowed to remain, having been established  before its neighborhood was zoned for residential use. It is not, however, allowed to expand.
     The zone change request, Ms. LeVerrier said at a town board work session Tuesday, is the result of “lengthy discussions’ with the Planning Department, town attorneys, and planning board members about how to resolve the problems.
    “This business can continue in perpetuity in its current state,” she said. “But who wants that? We want to fix it; the public wants to fix it; the town wants to fix it. What we have put before the board, what we have talked about with the planners, is a plan that makes sense.”
    The Planning Department, however, has concluded that the existing residential zoning is correct and should remain, Eric Schantz, a town planner, said at the hearing. In a memo to the town board the planning board, whose members were split evenly, 3 to 3, on whether to recommend the zone change, put forward reasons for and against the idea.
    Cyril’s, Mr. Schwartz said last Thursday, is “really in the worst place possible as far as public safety is concerned, and as far as environmental impacts are concerned” — in a low-lying area with surrounding wetlands and state and town-owned preserved land.    
    Zoning decisions, he said, should “preclude expansion of a commercial property in an area that’s not appropriate for it,” while respecting a property owner’s rights.
    Supporters of a zoning change cited the opportunity for much-needed improvements. But others said the improvements — a dozen off-road parking spots and a septic system designed to handle the waste generated by either 62 or 90-something people — would not make a significant difference.
    “I believe that we the town should be looking for a solution to all the problems this establishment creates,” said Councilwoman Theresa Quigley.
    Bob DeLuca, the president of Group for the East End, opposed the zone change. Should the town wish to effect changes on the site, he suggested it avail itself of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, where issues such as the comprehensive plan (which specifically calls for limiting the expansion of nonconforming properties), zoning regulations, and the code violations could be fully explored “in a context where it’s transparent and the public has access. . . .” The town could use the violations as leverage to achieve desired changes, he said.
    The 15 nearby homeowners on Napeague Harbor Road “are united in our opposition to this proposal,” said Coleen Rando. They relied on the residential zoning in place when buying their houses, she said. She displayed a collage of photos of the restaurant. One, she said, showed 400 people milling around its on-site parking area. “Why shouldn’t we expect the same thing to happen in a new parking area?” she said.
    One way to get the situation under control, said Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, was to require the business to comply with the limits of what it is at present legally allowed. “The folks who are using their parking lot as a bar are asking us to believe that if we let them build another parking lot, it will benefit the community, and that they will actually use it as a parking lot,” he said.
    “If you add another parking area, my sense is you’re just creating a bigger bar,” said Wilson Ervin, another neighbor.
    “We stand in opposition,” said Ken Levy-Church, who cited the instability of the low-lying area, particularly in the face of climate change and sea-level rise. At present, portable toilets are used and waste is trucked off site. That is preferable, Mr. Ervin said, to increasing the septic discharge underground.
    “It is possible to upgrade a sanitary system on the property” under current zoning, Drew Bennett, an engineer, said at the hearing. “It is not possible to increase the parking at the same time,” he said, without obtaining variances from the zoning board. 
    Napeague has an “incredible environmental value. Even the most modern septic system will dramatically increase” potential pollution, said Britton Bistrian, another nearby resident. “None of these expansions was ever in response to the problems at the site,” she said of the changes made without permits over the years. Instead, she said, they were “to serve more people . . . at any cost.”
    “Rather than whether the property should be rezoned, the question should be, at what point does the number of violations trigger questions about shutting down an illegal operation?” said John Broderick of Amagansett.
    “To reward a landowner with 24 outstanding violations seems preposterous to me,” Sheila Okin said. “As does expanding the lot coverage on a flood-prone, environmentally sensitive piece of property.”
    Betty Mazur of Amagansett said that hamlet’s citizens’ advisory committee opposes the zone change. “Most residents know [Cyril’s]” she said, “as a wildly overcrowded watering hole that spills unsteady customers onto Montauk Highway, where long lines of cars are precariously parking, creating a seasonal hazard.”
    But one member of ACAC, Christine Gaudy, disagreed, calling the restaurant a “landmark.” The owner is “doing everything logical” to address the problems there, she said. Tom Connors also supported the zone change. “It’s badly needed to have an updated septic system here because of the crowds,” he said.
    Ms. LeVerrier noted on Tuesday that there is no law limiting the number of “standing patrons” allowed on the property. Councilwoman Quigley suggested that since the crowds are the “key” to the resulting problems, perhaps, as a condition of granting the rezoning, the Dioguardis would agree to put a cap on their number.
    Debra Choron of Montauk said at the hearing that the zoning change was “a necessary first step in the right direction.” She submitted a petition signed by 27 others who agree. “These people are trying to put money into their business, and they should be allowed to do it,” Chuck Morici said.
    “It’s about, what do you want Napeague to look like,” said Debra Foster, a former planning board and town board member.
    The Dioguardis’ request, said Councilman Dominick Stanzione on Tuesday, raises a larger question about zoning policy regarding pre-existing, nonconforming sites. That question begs discussion, Ms. Quigley said.
    A tally compiled by a town-appointed business committee found that in the Amagansett School District, which includes Napeague, 44 percent of the parcels used by businesses are actually zoned for residential use. The situation prevails across town, the councilwoman said, and raises questions about the ability of businesses to grow and thrive.
    The hearing was held open for additional comment until next Thursday.