That East Hampton is divided into two camps these days — those who want to live here and those who simply want to make a buck — is worthy of particular concern as summer approaches. Finding a balance between them is what makes the job of those in Town Hall and the village’s Beecher House so tough. It is up to them to make decisions about the direction of the community and to keep in check those of a more, shall we say, extractive mind-set.
Montauk has become the front line in this fight. As the hamlet has grown more popular, so too have the pressures on officials to find that elusive balance. Recent history and the scale of wealth among some here make that even more difficult. In an astonishing passage in a recent New York Times profile of Michael Walrath, the 38-year-old tech millionaire and owner of the Montauk Surf Lodge, he was described as having “befriended” then-East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and, by implication, was able to use that relationship to resolve the bar and restaurant’s numerous code violations with a $100,000 settlement in town court.
The article went on to describe how Mr. Walrath “reduced capacity” at the Surf Lodge from 1,500 customers on some nights to 500. By any measure, 500 people is still too many by more than half for the Surf Lodge’s sensitive site on the edge of Fort Pond in a residential area. Of course, the Surf Lodge is hardly the only gathering place that’s gotten too big.
Plenty of residents have wondered how the Montauk Beach House was allowed to expand, becoming a club and music venue hosting hundreds of people without providing more than a scrap of off-street parking. Ruschmeyer’s Inn is another hopping nightspot, while Solé East’s bands and D.J.s provide an unwelcome nighttime beat in the old Shepherd’s Neck neighborhood.
Cyril’s Fish House on Napeague has been allowed to operate a bar with hundreds of patrons spilling onto the state Montauk Highway right-of-way. Only a short distance from Town Hall, vehicles of summer patrons at Bostwick’s Chowder House regularly overflow into no-parking zones. Meanwhile, an avoidable turf war between the East Hampton Town Trustees and the town board may prevent a solution for Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, which has taken on a Florida spring-break atmosphere on high-season weekends to the dismay of regulars. We’re probably forgetting a few, too.
None of these enterprises adequately compensates the community for the disturbances they cause. The jobs they create are generally seasonal and much of the money flows out of town as quickly as it flows in. They also create long-term risks to real estate values and rental rates. Officials are definitely trying to improve things. In East Hampton Village, serious consideration is being given to new rules on mechanized noise. The town board is taking a hard look at large, outdoor parties and other events.
Going into summer 2014, the yardstick with which to measure policy is to ask: Who benefits and who pays?
Officials must keep in mind that East Hampton is not dominated by the resort and nightlife sections of its economy. Residents, renters, and second-home owners keep this place going. Operations that flout local laws and diminish the attractiveness of this area for those who really pay the bills should be strongly discouraged.