Residents alarmed at the East Hampton Town Board’s recent discussion about using part of a 38-acre town property on the Napeague oceanfront for a parking lot to serve a new public beach with lifeguards voiced their concerns at a town board work session on Tuesday.
The group filled the meeting room at Town Hall and submitted a letter to the board citing the potential for environmental damage and traffic accidents should the plan proceed. Many in attendance were also members of the East End Dunes Residents Association, a neighborhood group including the area around Dolphin Drive, which the board had discussed as a possible access to the parking lot. The neighbors were cncerned that the board would consider placing a lot for as many as 100 cars in the northwest corner of the property.
“Allowing this area to be intruded upon in the proposed fashion, we feel, would be an environmental mistake of substantial proportions as well as a dangerous escalation of safety factors. . . .” they wrote. The Dolphin Drive intersection with Montauk Highway is across from an intersection with Napeague Meadow Road, the letter noted, and cars turning onto and off the highway already create a hazard, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists who use the shoulder of the road.
Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who had been researching potential locations for a new public beach and had broached the idea, was not in attendance, but Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson assured the group that the concept was merely an idea thrown out at a board work session. “It shouldn’t be taken as news,” he said. “It shouldn’t be taken as policy.” Rather, he said, it was the board deliberating on “how to solve certain problems.”
“We will never compromise on public safety in this town,” he continued. “We want to balance the openness of our beaches and the safety of those beaches.” The goal, he said, was to provide lifeguard protection on additional stretches of beach. To do so, however, the County Health Department requires that public restrooms be provided.
“We appreciate your well-thought-out response . . . your objection to a thought,” he told Mike Sterlacci, a Dolphin Drive resident who acted as spokesman for the residents’ group.
Mr. Sterlacci presented each town board member with a DVD copy of a town board meeting in 2000, when purchase of the acreage was discussed. At that meeting, he said, the land was described as an “unusual and valuable piece of property” containing protected plant and animal species, and dunes that provide key protection against coastal flooding. “That was the tenor of the entire meeting,” he said.
He also gave board members a CD containing a song he wrote about Montauk, and recited its lyrics, which discuss the beauty of the natural beach here.
The matter was discussed by the board at a Sept. 20 meeting, when Ms. Quigley reported that she and Mr. Wilkinson had met with the town engineer, planning director, town attorneys, lifeguards’ association head, and parks and recreation administrators, as well as a representative of the town trustees, to discuss it.
“This is an idea that has been out there for 10 years or so,” Ms. Quigley said on Sept. 20. “But we have sat down and tried to move this forward.” The area, she said, is already used by beachgoers who park along Montauk Highway. Creating a bona fide public beach, with a parking area, both she and Mr. Wilkinson said, could “provide another opportunity” to relieve crowded beaches and get cars off the highway.
Town Councilman Pete Hammerle, a member of the board that approved the land purchase almost 12 years ago for about $8 million, said that the town had also swapped some land adjacent to the Lobster Roll restaurant with the eatery’s owners to provide more space for on-site parking, and ended up with two small lots near the Lobster Roll property, totaling about two acres.
Board members discussed a “non-lifeguarded, low-key beach access,” from that spot, Mr. Hammerle said, with a wooden walkway leading over the dunes to the beach. However, the state Department of Environmental Conservation did not approve.
Ricky Greening of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays told the board that “as wild spaces are cleared, many animals are displaced from their homes.”
“We should ask ourselves,” he said, “if we are willing to jeopardize entire species so that tourists can have another beach and another summer playground. . . .”
The board, Councilman Dominick Stanzione said, must find a balance between “reasonable attractions for a tourist town — which is what we are — and limiting impacts on nature. You know, we could ask everyone to leave, and nature would take its course.”
Jeremy Samuelson, an environmental advocate with the Group for the East End, who said he also works closely with the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, referred the board to information compiled by the town when the acreage was purchased, including comments by the town natural resources director, Larry Penny. The corner of the site proposed for parking, Mr. Samuelson said, is the most important area in terms of habitat, natural features, and species protection.
“I would ask that you please benefit from the work that’s already been done,” he said, pointing to, among other things, an initial plan prepared by the Planning Department in 2001 for a 31-space parking lot on the two easterly town acres.
Mr. Samuelson asked board members to articulate the procedure that would be followed in investigating the new beach idea.
“The idea was as simple as this: Can we get another lifeguarded beach, and where would it be?” Mr. Wilkinson said. “We have this current access — current — at the end of Dolphin Drive, and all the property around it,” he said. plus access to a public water main to hook up restrooms. “It was as simple as that,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “And I don’t think there’s a person in this town that wouldn’t like to see another beach that’s lifeguarded.”
“It’s not a want; it’s a must,” he added later. However, he said, the Dolphin Drive idea was only the result of “brainstorming.”
“If anybody thinks, by the way, that I’d like to bring up more controversy at this time of year. . . .” Mr. Wilkinson said, referring to his bid for re-election.
In answer to further questions from Mr. Samuelson, he said that he would like to see another lifeguarded beach added by next summer. “Do I envision a series of public meetings on it? Yes,” he said.