What is unfortunate about the Montauk Ronjo (now the Beach House) controversy is that it has happened at all. The fact that it has points less to politics, as Supervisor Bill Wilkinson calls it, and more to a judgment gap in Town Hall in which flawed decisions can be made casually.
Back in February, a company headed by Chris Jones, of last year’s aborted Music to Know concert, and Lawrence Siedlick, a big-check donor to local and national Republican campaigns, paid $4.2 million for the Ronjo motel and an adjacent lot. The properties were clearly bisected on official maps by an alley owned by the Town of East Hampton. At least on paper, the alley starts on South Edison Street and doglegs around to South Elmwood Avenue.
Over the years, however, the Ronjo was expanded onto the town alley. Recent aerial photos show a couple of outbuildings or sheds in the middle of it, as well as a corner of the motel’s pool deck and a part of a parking lot. How this was allowed to happen and over what time span no one, or at least no one who wants to speak out, seems to know. But for all intents the one-time alley was appropriated as part of the motel grounds; a tree was even planted on one end of it. Nearby Montauk businesses use another part of the alley for back-door access, deliveries, and to get to off-street parking, but what was mapped as access from the east is blocked.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick apparently knew they were buying two separate parcels of land; transfer documents filed with Suffolk County indicate this fact. Nonetheless, a few weeks after the closing, they, or a representative, apparently got Mr. Wilkinson to agree to sell them a portion of the alley for $35,000.
Much has been made of a statement by Mr. Wilkinson that he arbitrarily came up with the $35,000 figure. East Hampton Democrats have seized on it, saying there was no way to know for sure if the price was right. Given the expansion of the Ronjo onto the alley, it is hard to know its fair-market value.
The deal was approved 3 to 2 on March 6, along party lines. East Hampton Democrats have mounted a petition drive, demanding that the resolution authorizing the sale be overturned or put to public vote. An appraisal paid for by the opponents of the deal by a respected local expert put the alley’s value at $184,000; another one, paid for by Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick, came in far lower, at $22,500.
In comments at a recent town board meeting, Mr. Wilkinson said the town attorney had told him that an appraisal of the roughly 3,700-square-foot portion of the alley the new owners want title to was not necessary. This could be true if you don’t look all that closely, but local governments are obligated to get the best prices they can when they sell assets and to avoid the appearance of favoritism. Clarified state law on how local governments divest assets may be in order here. Already, the Town of East Hampton is embroiled in a lawsuit challenging its effort to sell Fort Pond House, again in Montauk, which some have said may be an improperly shuttered and dumped public park.
The Ronjo dispute is surely political, but that does not mean appropriate procedures were followed. That many of the petition’s 644 signers do not live in Montauk, as the supervisor has protested, is a red herring. All town residents have an interest in how Town Hall is managed and especially when it comes to selling public property.
The town attorney’s office, which allowed the town board under Mr. Wilkinson to blunder into Mr. Jones’s failed Music to Know concert, appears to have done it again. It is a serious disappointment that its lawyers didn’t speak out about an arrangement that was so primed to blow up in Mr. Wilkinson’s lap. Impulsive in his eagerness to do what he can for what he perceives is beneficial for taxpayers and local businesses, the supervisor is going to do what he is going to do. It is up to the town’s legal team and land-use professionals to make sure he does it in a way that is squeaky clean, not a jumbled-up mess in which numbers are pulled out of the air. No one in Town Hall, it seems, has had the nerve to object when obvious trouble looms. Agree with his policies or not, the supervisor deserves better, and it is not fair for him to take all the blame.
What is regrettable is that the solution appears simple: The town could throw out the resolution to sell the property to Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick and seek an appraisal of its own. Another route, one that has not been discussed as far as we know, would be for the town to grant the motel owners an easement over the disputed property — in which no money changes hands. Though perhaps not the bloodbath the Democrats might be hankering for, it could be a satisfactory alternative.
Resolving the Ronjo tangle will be the easy part. Providing the structure and openness that will make competent decision-making in Town Hall the rule will be a long-term project.