With the support of the East Hampton Town Planning Board, the Montauk Highway in Wainscott is fast on its way to being further commercialized. Already, this “gateway” to our beautiful town is a visual hodgepodge of ill-thought buildings — and an increasing four-season traffic nightmare.
In the last year the board approved a major expansion of the use of the former Plitt Ford property, without taking time for a clear-eyed and honest review of its implications. Now, the board is sounding satisfied with the conversion of the onetime Star Room nightclub to a car wash.
Just ask anyone who has had to contend with the tie-ups — going both east and west — in Wainscott if more commercial development is a good idea. We suspect the number who would say yes would be close to zero. The plan includes adding an exit from the car wash onto East Gate Road, a residential street. By strictly constraining what can happen on the Star Room site, the town could reduce the damage done in its flawed and hasty analysis of the Plitt Ford plan.
Traffic is one reason why the initial, reflexive support given the preliminary car wash proposal by Diana Weir, the board’s vice chairwoman, is disappointing. At a September planning board meeting, Ms. Weir said the car wash would be a “good use” of the site. Mind you, this was before any study of the proposal or even a formal application had been made. That she would offer so prejudicial an opinion in the absence of any supporting material or opportunity for rebuttal sharply calls into question her fitness for the post.
Car washes are hardly the kind of economic opportunity East Hampton officials should be backing anyway. The industry depends on unskilled, usually immigrant workers who receive rock-bottom wages and sometimes work in deplorable and unsafe conditions. According to a 2008 investigation done by New York State, underpayment of workers is endemic. An advocacy group trying to help car-wash workers has said that, statewide, at least two-thirds were not paid minimum wage, most never received required overtime pay, and almost none got employer-provided health insurance. Individual carwasheros, as they are sometimes called, have spoken out about the noxious chemicals used and say they are often required to provide their own gloves and other safety gear.
As to environmental concerns, though in their early pitch, the developers of the car wash said their facility would be built to the most modern standards and would not harm groundwater or the Georgica Pond watershed. That claim, and others painting this plan as completely benign, remain to be evaluated.
As this review is going on, the East Hampton Town Board should step in and take an in-depth look at the Montauk Highway in Wainscott and ask itself what the future may have in store. A starting point would be the 2005 comprehensive plan, which said new vehicular accesses, commercial sprawl, and development along the highway should be limited. Not much time remains.