A strongly worded decision issued last week by an East Hampton Town justice explains for the first time why charges against the Surf Lodge in Montauk have moldered for so long and continue to be unresolved.
Justice Catherine A. Cahill, in an eight-page statement, rebuffed a motion by a lawyer for the bar and restaurant asking that she step aside from presiding at a hearing on 687 fire code and zoning violations accumulated last year. Charges described by Ms. Cahill include work conducted without a building permit, no certificate of occupancy, no site plan approval, illegal clearing of wetlands, and overcrowding. The number of citations issued by town code enforcers ranged from 1 to 13 per day.
A large part of Ms. Cahill’s statement cites the reasons why she refused to recuse herself. Had she done so, however, the case would have gone to the other town justice, Lisa R. Rana, and further stalled adjudication of the complaints, which may have been the Surf Lodge’s intention. At any rate, in the decision, Ms. Cahill reports that one of the town’s prosecuting attorneys told the court in August that while the town’s goal was that the Surf Lodge comply with town law it had no “game plan” for how that would be accomplished.
Pointedly, Ms. Cahill said it was clear that the town could have sought an injunction last summer to force the matter — before any convictions. This is in direct contradiction to statements by East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who said at the time that there was nothing that could be done until the charges were resolved in Justice Court. Why Mr. Wilkinson and the town board declined go this route is open to speculation, but what Ms. Cahill has to say is a window on the insider’s world that has been Town Hall. In an important passage, Ms. Cahill wrote that the town prosecutor had made “claims to the contrary,” denying clear health and safety violations, which would have supported an injunction.
The history of the case as described by Ms. Cahill gets even stranger. As far back as July, the Surf Lodge’s operating partners and attorney ignored criminal summonses issued by Ms. Cahill to appear in her court. These came after no one appeared to answer an alleged fire code violation. When the Surf Lodge people failed to show up, Ms. Cahill wrote, she issued another set of summonses the following week. No one appeared then either, so she issued warrants for their arrest.
It was only then that the lawyer and Surf Lodge partners appeared and told the court that they had been in a “very fruitful” private meeting with a number of town officials, which was unknown to the court. Ms. Cahill wrote that had the meeting been intended to “somehow resolve or adjudicate the charges . . . the court should have been consulted.”
Many Montauk residents and others, who complained about the Surf Lodge last summer, have wondered why the town allowed it to continue operating while so many alleged violations were pending. A full explanation may never come, but Ms. Cahill’s remarkable history of the case has raised some important questions about what took place — or didn’t — and Town Hall’s involvement.