Now in its second season, the Montauk Beach House, a hotel, bar, and music venue, remains in the news for good reason: How the modest former Ronjo Motel turned into a far larger business complex with only the barest of planning review is a key question for East Hampton Town officials — and the electorate.
The Beach House is hardly the only example of a land-use and zoning process run off the rails in town. Cyril’s Fish House on Napeague, where patrons and taxis use the state right of way as if it were private property, has been allowed to operate a restaurant and bar despite numerous citations. The Inn at Windmill Lane in Amagansett has been allowed to expand twice, including into a historic district building, without the required site plan review. The Panoramic View in Montauk was converted and expanded without authorization from the town planning board. And it was only under pressure that town officials reversed their position on the Dunes, a high-priced alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility in Northwest Woods, which apparently was operating illegally on a parcel zoned for residences. Don’t try any of this at home, however; in each case the operators were well-connected, extremely well-funded, or both.
Town officials, notably the top building inspector, Tom Preiato, are beginning to take a tougher, if overdue, line on the Beach House. When the property was the threadbare Ronjo, it boasted 33 rooms and few other amenities. Now, after a multimillion-dollar renovation, the Beach House has only 32 rooms, but it has an outdoor bar, a cafe, clothing boutique, membership pool club, and live music acts and D.J.s, which pull in, by even the owners’ cautious statements, as many as 300 to 400 people a day.
The conundrum at the Beach House is that it occupies a site where these uses are prohibited under present zoning. It doesn’t even have a town music permit. The Ronjo was allowed to persist as a nonconforming use because it pre-existed zoning. Under the town code, however, any expansion whatsoever is supposed to be subject to strict review. Nor has the Beach House’s vastly expanded operation triggered the town’s parking calculation, by which it would either have had to provide ample spaces for its patrons or pay into a fund earmarked for that purpose.
This all appears to have been made possible by a compliant Town Hall, which has looked past these issues and the fact that the place doesn’t even have a valid certificate of occupancy, without which it should not have opened its doors. There has even been an allegation of what might be called witness-tampering, in which someone with knowledge of the entertainment at the Beach House was dissuaded from speaking at a town planning board hearing.
You can be sure that other East Hampton Town motel or resort business owners are watching closely to see how far the Beach House owners can push things. It would be a lucrative precedent if its expansion were allowed to stand. Conversely, those concerned with how the town enforces its zoning laws, quality of life issues, parking, traffic, and noise should be demanding a stronger hand. This gets at a fundamental question about who town government is for: residents or those who just want to make a buck. No one, no matter how well they are able to play the system to their advantage, should be above the law.