Here in East Hampton Town, because so many delis and other takeout joints around here have seating of one sort or another for patrons, one might be forgiven for believing it was legal. It is not, though officials are considering how to make it so.
It is interesting to reflect on how things once were: The number of seats at eateries was tied to parking availability, as well as a space’s interior fire-safety capacity. At the moment, that hardly seems to matter. It could be that the town’s enforcement staff is too busy these days to get to this kind of thing, but it also could be that perceptions have changed, with a growing, if unfortunate, sense that where customers leave their vehicles is no longer the businesses’ problem. Now, the town board is poised to allow up to 16 seats per establishment, with no hint that owners would have to pay into the once-important, if ineffective, parking fund.
To us, this giveaway looks like evidence of officials’ off-season amnesia of the sort we have seen again and again. It is unlikely that the members of the East Hampton Town Board would be quite so generous in the heat of packed July. Yet here we are, as Memorial Day weekend approaches, getting ready to formally allow places that prepare food for off-premises eating to become de facto restaurants. Forgive us, but this seems an experiment that will only add to congestion, not ease it.
At the same time, the town is toying with the idea of allowing restaurants in Montauk to place their tables and chairs on public property in a test. This is a sounder idea, provided the town is able to make sure that by doing so the restaurants do not add to their capacity — again, taking away parking from other businesses. They are doing it anyway; bringing some order to the chaos is a must.
At a minimum, eateries providing seating should be compelled to install restrooms commensurate with the expected number of diners, as well as state-of-the-art wastewater systems once county regulators approve them. To encourage additional on-site activity without adequate environmental precautions would be unacceptable, especially for a town that is so otherwise enthusiastic about water quality. The town should not give something away so easily without demanding meaningful concessions in return, a payment, in effect, for loosening longstanding, hard-won zoning restraints.
Balanced and fair regulation of high-traffic businesses is no easy thing, and the hodgepodge that exists now of legal and not-so-legal seating arrangements certainly could use tidying up. Adding seats or grandfathering those improperly there already before there is a commitment to enforcing existing rules and protecting the environment, however, would to be a serious mistake. Deli dining should come at a price.