In and of itself, a massive members-only club proposed for the former East Deck Motel site at Ditch Plain does not represent the end of Montauk as we know and love it, but it comes close.
Here is what is understood so far: An anonymous new owner has come up with a plan to more than double the use of the property by building a two-story complex with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a restaurant, and below-grade parking. The club would be open to some 179 members, along with their families and guests, based apparently on the space available on the beach in front of the parcel.
Built to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards, with a ground floor about 15 feet above sea level, the proposed 12,000-square-foot main building would tower over the area, cutting off views from nearby houses, and greatly change the look and feel of the area — for the worse. It could be that a grandiose plan for the new club was presented as an initial ante to be bargained down to what the owner really wants. But even at half the size, it would represent an unwise doubling of the former motel. And remember, this comes in part from the legal team responsible for the Montauk Beach House, another intrusion on parking, public property, and the community.
Viewed another way, the project amounts to a proposal to privatize a longstanding, popular public beach. If the plan eventually is approved, the club’s members, by force of numbers alone, would take over the sand between the so-called East Deck parking area and the legendary Dirt Lot. Though passage would not technically be blocked, amenities, like daybeds and beach lounge chairs, might well make it clear that ordinary folks are not welcome. Surfers at Ditch, already often frustrated by the crowded lineup, might well have to swallow a new and more self-entitled breed less willing to share the waves because they’ve paid for the privilege. And East Hampton officials will also have to consider what additional burden the additional club crowd might put on the town lifeguards just to the west.
The plan was the talk of Saturday’s Montauk Playhouse fund-raiser, where Alice Houseknecht, a former East Deck owner, was among the honorees. It appears that Ms. Houseknecht was hornswoggled by the mystery owner or his or her representatives when she sold the property. She reported last fall that she had been assured there would be no second story on the new structure and that the integrity of the site would be maintained. Based on the paperwork submitted to town planners so far, this is not true, which suggests that the people behind the scheme cannot be taken at their word. Town officials must proceed with the greatest suspicion in reviewing their project.
Our doubts also have been raised by the faceless owner’s successfully getting the town to accept a questionable gift of an expensive dune restoration project that looked then, as it does even more now, like a pot-sweetener for requests that were to come. We wonder just how ethical, or even legal, it was for a municipality to accept a donation from a party with an active plan working its way through its regulatory offices or about to be. Whether or not the gift was intended to curry favor (which it almost certainy was), it was unwise of officials to accept it.
Unfortunately, the project makes it clear that the site’s zoning, and that of other attractive parcels, especially around Montauk, is too permissive. In the 2005 East Hampton Town Comprehensive Plan, no changes were recommended for the resort zoning at Ditch Plain, including the Montauk Shores Condominium trailer park. This means that well-funded investors could further try to maximize their returns in spite of a widely held view that Montauk is already at its saturation point in terms of resorts and visitors.
What happens at East Deck aside, as pressures continue for more, bigger, and fancier projects, officials need to take a hard look at whether existing rules are adequate to assure that the town’s shoreline remains one residents can be proud of. Concepts like the Ditch Plain club, which only add to congestion and environmental impacts and at the same time use public resources as if they were their own, have little place here.