A move by the East Hampton Town Board to take on the seasonal problem of huge outdoor crowds at some bars and restaurants is welcome, but support should come with several caveats.
As things stand, the town code is vague about how outdoor patrons of places such as at Cyril’s on Napeague and the Surf Lodge and Sloppy Tuna in Montauk should be counted — if at all. Regulations govern how much parking must be provided based on interior space, but give little guidance when the masses assemble for drinks under the open sky.
Some observers have argued that crowds of more than 50 people on a commercial property should trigger the town’s mass gathering law, but, even if this is legally valid, it has not been tested.
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley has prompted a discussion of new outdoor-occupancy rules. A draft she has prepared would allow one person for every seven square feet of “usable space.” While this might work in the town’s central business zones, where public parking is provided, if the proposal was put in place without change for pre-existing, nonconforming bars and restaurants in residential zones, it could make things worse.
The Surf Lodge and the newly hip Ruschmeyer’s Inn on Second House Road in Montauk, for example, are each in a residential zone. They have ample property to which this generous 7-to-1 calculation could be applied. Think, too, about what could happen elsewhere in the Town of East Hampton if this became law. Could East Hampton Point’s Sunday reggae event suddenly book Ziggy Marley and draw 1,000 people? In all likelihood, yes. There may be enough room for them outdoors, but where would they all park?
If the town is going to codify outdoor occupancy by businesses in residential zones, it must tie the rules to a property owner’s providing off-street parking for those patrons. In no way is it right for residents to have to cope with business parking on streets not laid out for that purpose, as well as the attendant noise and litter. Want one patron for every seven square feet of outdoor space? Provide a place for everyone to park. That quid pro quo should be in the law if it is to merit serious consideration.
On a side note: Contrary to something Ms. Quigley has said, East Hampton is not “a resort economy”; far more economic activity — as well as the majority of property tax receipts — are generated by second-home owners who are entitled to a certain quality of life here. That quality of life does not extend to outdoor hoopla each and every summer weekend.
Those who support the Surf Lodge and the other pre-existing, nonconforming operations say that residents who bought houses nearby should have known the risk. We see it the other way: The people who bought certain bars and restaurants should have known their properties did not meet the town’s modern zoning. Buyer beware applies to business owners, too, and in the case of nonconformance, even more so.
If businesses like the idea of having their outdoor capacity defined so that they can expand legally, fine. They should not be allowed, however, to make residents bear the burden of their success — or failure. Reining in these trouble spots is appropriate; the draft so far would fail to do so and probably make matters permanently worse.