Envisioning Montauk, Circa 2026

In workshops, residents roll up sleeves, hoping to shape future development
In one of a series of meetings in Montauk last week, planners consulting with the town on a hamlet study focusing on commercial properties gathered to study maps and come up with priorities for the future of the hamlet’s downtown and dock areas. Joanne Pilgrim

Dozens of residents of the South Fork’s easternmost hamlet gathered last week for a slate of workshops as planning consultants sought to pin down a “consensus vision for the future of Montauk,” as Peter Flinker, a principal in the firm Dodson and Flinker, put it.

According to the consultants, who pulled data from various sources, Montauk has 3,326 full-time, year-round residents, including 898 families, 318 of them with children. Sixty-two percent of the hamlet’s 7,029 acres is preserved open space. There are 36.5 acres in a central business zone; another acre is zoned for neighborhood business.

In sessions from Wednesday through Saturday morning, Mr. Flinker and his associates, including Lisa Liquori, a former East Hampton Town planning director, worked to pinpoint Montauk’s “problems and opportunities,” as seen by the participants, and presented issues and possible scenarios, focusing on the downtown and harbor commercial areas, for the public’s consideration.

The town comprehensive plan, last updated in 2005, calls for detailed studies of the commercial areas of each hamlet, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc explained at one of the meetings. “We’re not rewriting the comprehensive plan; we’re putting a finer point on it,” he said.

Once the community outlines its hopes for future development, preservation, or a bit of both, officials can work to develop policy, laws, and other initiatives.

“Do we let things happen however, or is there a way to direct growth?” Mr. Flinker asked the group at one meeting, seeking “clear priorities of what you want and what is possible. Tell us tonight what you want to work on, what you want us to work on.”

A picture emerged over the course of several walking tours, participatory workshops, focus group discussions, mapping and planning events, and short presentations by members of the consulting team, including a traffic consultant and an economic specialist, Russ Archambault, who is putting together economic reports based on an analysis of each hamlet’s population, sectors of the economy, employment trends, retail business, and more.

In Montauk, as “a way to start to see what we’re dealing with here,” he is examining what it would mean if every type of housing — campsites, hotel rooms, second homes, full-time residences — were occupied. Besides tourist spending on lodging and other services, segments of the Montauk economy include commercial fishing, agriculture, construction, and real estate, he said, and the impact of rising home prices is a factor, as houses turn over and new owners seek a return on their investment. He will create an economic model, he said, illustrating possible changes in various industries and the impact on the overall economy.

A sizable group on a morning walking tour of the downtown area took a loop route from the gazebo on the green, with stops near Fort Pond, the 7-Eleven, and the ocean beach, among others. They discussed parking, a proposal to make parts of some downtown streets one way, pedestrian safety and crosswalks, transportation, sidewalks, affordable housing, new development of vacant lots and redevelopment, and coastal issues. To tame traffic, slowing it for safety in congested areas but also keeping it flowing and eliminating unsafe turns, Ray DeBiase, the transportation consultant, suggested ins talling roundabouts where the Old Montauk Highway, Montauk Highway, and Second House Road come together, and at the intersection of Flamingo Avenue and West Lake Drive near the docks.

In planning for a future in which sea level is expected to rise by 2050 by between 8 and 30 inches, according to the span of estimates, and for an area like downtown Montauk that is in a flood plain and exposed to continued erosion, high tides, and storm surges during bad weather or hurricanes, “none of the options are simple,” Nate Burgess, one of the consultants, told a group.

“The key word is uncertainty,” he said, “and being prepared for resilience — having different kinds of plans in place, depending on what happens.”

On maps showing where the Atlantic would reach under different projections and occurrences, and outlining a “breach zone” through the heart of Montauk’s downtown, where the ocean broke through to Fort Pond during the Hurricane of 1938, he asked people to place stickers and Post-It notes indicating what they thought should be done. Options included maintaining the status quo, perhaps adding sand to downtown beaches to stave off the sea; raising shoreline buildings up and also re-nourishing the beach, and relocating businesses in vulnerable zones to higher ground, perhaps up the hill on Essex Street, at Camp Hero, or in areas around the train station or firehouse — essentially beginning a satellite business area or an alternate downtown.

The changes would take place slowly, over time, and approaches could be combined, said Mr. Burgess.

A group touring the harbor area began at the shore along Block Island Sound, stopped at the commercial fishing dock, and continued around the harbor, where there is undeveloped commercial property — “relatively rare” in Montauk, said Harry Dodson, a consultant, and providing an opportunity to shape the future.

He said he had heard a “strong consensus” from participants that the harbor area should retain its “non-spiffy character” as a working waterfront, and the commercial fishing industry should be protected. There is interest also in “keeping the kind of down-to-earth tourism that relates to the working waterfront,” he said. But with both the Gosman’s Dock property and the Duryea fishing dock for sale, the question is how to achieve that “in a way that accommodates the kind of real estate price pressures that are coming to bear.”

A loss of the fishing industry in Montauk would mean not just a loss of jobs, said Andy Harris of Montauk, but the loss of a “cultural identity” as well. The economy would be widely affected, he said. “The loss would be huge if this just became all resort and no commercial fishing.”

The town’s local waterfront revitalization plan sets a goal of protecting the fishing industry, but its policies could be examined and strengthened, the consultants said.

One resident suggested that perhaps a development rights purchase program, similar to the one through which the town buys the rights to farmland, could be employed to protect working waterfront property — preserving it by precluding its development while it stays in private ownership.

Other suggestions included creating a continuous harborfront walk, guiding commercial development in the harbor area so parking can be centralized, and adding various types of housing to create a “fishing village” design.

During a session at the Montauk Playhouse, coastal resiliency, housing, and water quality took center stage. Ms. Liquori led the housing discussion, soliciting opinions about what kind is appropriate for seasonal or year-round residents, and where it should go. Should the town, through zoning or other initiatives, encourage apartment buildings, town houses, single-family cottages, portable pods, accessory apartments or cottages, apartments above businesses? Should new housing be scattered throughout existing neighborhoods, isolated in new areas, mixed into downtown, or added to a new “transit center,” perhaps near the Long Island Rail Road station?

Mr. Dodson provided examples of “how a community taking proactive action can really shape the outcome of what’s there,” over time by adopting town policies to “make sure new development takes place in the way that you want it to be.”

The needs and challenges of Montauk, some said, are radically different in the summertime and the off-season, a big consideration.

“This is the beginning of the process,” Mr. Van Scoyoc explained at a meeting last weekend.

Reports by subcommittees of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee focusing on various issues have been submitted to the consultants; comments may be sent to them by email to info@dodsonflinker.com.

Now that tours and discussion sessions have taken place in each of East Hampton’s hamlets, the consultants will prepare and deliver a draft summary of options and recommendations for each, for review by town staff, the town board, and the public. Their analyses will incorporate data and recommendations in other town-sponsored studies, such as the plan for wastewater management prepared for the town by Pio Lombardo of Lombardo Associates. The plans will be discussed publicly at town board work sessions, and hearings will be held to solicit public opinion before the town board acts on any part of the plan.

With an overall vision in place, Mr. Flinker said, proposals for development projects such as site-plan applications, now being reviewed separately, will be looked at as part of a whole, with the entire town’s ultimate goals in mind.