For the Town of East Hampton, a request from a Napeague property owner to change the zoning of the land on which the summertime traffic nuisance called Cyril’s Fish House sits amounts to an existential challenge.
From the property owner’s perspective, seeking permission to legalize a host of additions on the property, improve septic conditions, and add parking spaces makes sense. The land’s classification as residential makes Cyril’s what is known as pre-existing and nonconforming. This means that while its operation cannot be summarily shut down by the town on land-use grounds, neither can it be expanded or improved without being subjected to hypothetically stringent site-plan review.
The town’s decision on this is not yet known. The planning board, asked to review an application for a change of zone that would make Cyril’s a conforming use, split 3-3. The final say now rests with the East Hampton Town Board, which would have to schedule a hearing — though it also has the option to decline consideration altogether. Two reasons why town should not proceed any further are how Cyril’s Fish House has been operated historically and how a zone change would set a potentially disastrous precedent.
At this point there are probably few residents who have not at some point driven by Cyril’s on a hot summer day and been disturbed, if not shocked. Traffic in both directions slows to a creep well before the restaurant comes into view. Vehicles of patrons are parked for a quarter mile or more to the east and west. Then, as one gets nearer, taxis are stacked up or double-parked and hundreds of people are clustered in the gravel by an outside bar, frozen drinks and beers in hand. This goes on well into the sunset.
A couple of years ago, a pickup truck struck a woman crossing the highway to get to Cyril’s and, in an unrelated incident somewhat more recently, a driver involved in a road-rage confrontation wound up flipping his vehicle off the road’s edge instead of plowing into the crowd. In the early morning, empty plastic cups and other litter is seen strewn along the highway, along with the odd vehicle or two of people who found other ways home. Last summer, the East Hampton Town police began posting emergency no-parking signs nearby, hoping to reduce the risk of harm to drivers, pedestrians, and bar-goers alike.
Just why this growing eyesore, probable environmental risk, and seasonal traffic nightmare has been allowed to persist is anyone’s guess. The town should have done something about it long ago, but, as with other commercial ventures here, especially when they have strong ties to a local political committee, the tendency is to look the other way, even though much of the money that changes hands there heads straight out of town come fall.
The town code was drafted in a way that acknowledges pre-existing restaurants, rooming houses, and the like on property zoned for residences but in the hope that they would disappear over time, or at least not be made larger, or, in the parlance of planning and zoning, more nonconforming. In practice, however, top town officials have again and again ignored this aspect of the law, standing by while the Building Department handed out permits on the scantiest of supporting documentation, for example, or simply not reacting when certain businesses are expanded without any permission at all, as at the Montauk Beach House and former Reform Club in Amagansett.
Cyril’s, which has been cited dozens of times for code violations but never been required to correct them, would see most if not all of its alleged transgressions erased if the town board agreed to change its zoning. This would be an unconscionable reward for a venture that has been ignoring the law for so long, and a signal to others that the rules need not necessarily apply if you really know how to play the game.