Tussle Over Ronjo Alley

Disparate appraisals; 630 want town not to sell

    Controversy continued this week over the proposed sale of a piece of an East Hampton Town alley that bisects the downtown Montauk site of the old Ronjo motel, which is being renovated by new owners.    
    Two privately ordered appraisals have set the value of the alleyway at widely varying points, both differing from the proposed sale price of $35,000, which was approved by the town board majority on March 6.
    An appraisal commissioned by the East Hampton Democratic Committee, which also organized a petition drive challenging the Republican majority vote on the sale, puts the value of the alley at $184,000.
    The appraisal was prepared by Cynthia Marshall, whose firm, Clark and Marshall, is used often by the town.
    However, Stephen H. Schuster of Sag Harbor, an appraiser hired by Chris Jones and Lawrence Siedlick, the new owners of the motel, which they are calling the Montauk Beach House, sets the value at $22,500.
    Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick, whose limited liability company bought the Ronjo in February for $4.2 million, discovered during the transaction that some 3,700 square feet of the town alleyway, which runs perpendicular to South Edison Street behind stores on South Etna Avenue, bisects the property of the motel, which has encroached on it over the years.
    The East Hampton Democrats were to deliver a 46-page petition to the town clerk yesterday afternoon with the signatures of 630 town residents requesting that the sale be put to a public referendum.
    Upon the collection of enough signatures — 5 percent of the number of local votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, which the Democrats have estimated at 405 — state law calls for the town board either to repeal the resolution of sale or to hold a vote seeking the public’s approval within no less than 60 nor more than 75 days.
    Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has said at several meetings that he had pulled the $35,000 sale price “out of the air,” and he and other board Republicans resisted calls to have the value of the alley appraised, citing a transfer in 1999 of land at the other end of the alley from the town to a business owner for $2,500.
    That deal, according to a board resolution from that year, included a reciprocal grant to the town of an easement that maintained public use of the thoroughfare.
    Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, the Democratic board minority, had opposed the sale without first obtaining an appraisal and investigating the details regarding use of the alleyway. The open portion of the alley provides access to and parking for the adjacent businesses.
    Mr. Jones owns the Solé East motels in Montauk, and was an organizer of the aborted Music to Know concert, for which the town board, in a split and controversial vote last year, issued a permit after a cursory review.
    The concert was to be held on Amagansett farmland. Citizens’ concerns about the traffic and crowding that were feared as a result led to a lawsuit against the town and an offer by town officials to hold the event at East Hampton Airport on an August weekend. It was canceled at the last minute, however, due to a lack of ticket sales.
    Mr. Siedlick is a businessman who has been a donor to national and regional Republican campaigns over the past several years.
    In a press release issued yesterday, Jeanne Frankl, the chairwoman of the Town Democratic Committee, said, “The discrepancy of $149,000 between the sale price and appraised value corroborates our conviction that the sale was a gift, violating the State Constitution.” 
    According to the release, “members of all parties and unaffiliated voters” signed the petitions challenging the sale. “People from all communities and across the political spectrum signed without hesitation, expressing outrage at the sale of public property without an appraisal. Some mourned that the sale was part of a pattern of the current government administration selling off all town property,” the press release said.
    “The people who signed the petition and probably many more among the public, hope the board will rescind and repeal the decision in accordance with their option under the law, avoiding a costly election,” according to the press release.
    “Certainly any sale should be based on the appraisal. Even before that, it is believed the board’s fiduciary duty requires a broader assessment the supervisor also omitted in his impulsive decision, of the implications for the public including the Ronjo’s neighboring businesses, of turning the alleyway over to a single owner that would cut off public access entirely,” the release said.
    In a statement also issued yesterday, Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick said that they envisioned the revitalization of the Ronjo property “in keeping with the very special nature of Montauk,” into “a resort property that we believe will be viewed positively by our community.”
    “Sadly, we did not anticipate the current political controversy over a sliver of land that for over 50 years was utilized by the previous owners of the property,” it continued.
    “We have no desire to be involved in controversy and regret the fact that this very positive project is now embroiled in what seems to be a political dispute over which we have no control. We hope the issue is resolved in a fair and equitable manner that benefits the long-term interests of our community.”
    In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Jones said remarks quoted in another newspaper this week regarding the potential for the motel property to become subsidized low-income housing should his plans be derailed were taken out of context.
    In their statement, the new owners said that they are “working very hard to complete the renovations so that the Montauk Beach House will be open for the 2012 summer season.”