A seemingly innocuous sale of 3,700 square feet of a town-owned Montauk alley that for decades has been surrounded by the grounds of the old Ronjo motel in Montauk has turned into a thorny morass raising hackles all around. At issue is the transfer of the alley from East Hampton Town to the motel’s new owners, who are trying to complete a ground-up transformation of the property in time to open for the season.
A divided town board approved the sale for $35,000 over the objections of the two Democratic board members, who called for an appraisal of the land first, and an examination of the public’s interest in the alley and, perhaps, maintaining an easement over it for future municipal use.
The East Hampton Town Democratic Committee collected signatures seeking to force a public vote on the sale, casting the deal as a pro-business favor by Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson to Chris Jones, a hotelier, and his partner, Lawrence Siedlick, a Republican donor, who bought the old Ronjo site for $4.2 million in February.
They are trying to finish a complete renovation in order to open a new, stylish hotel to be called the Montauk Beach House but were hit with a stop-work order issued by the Town Building Department last week covering an excavation needed to build the motel office.
Two different appraisals, one commissioned by the Democratic committee and the other by Mr. Siedlick and Mr. Jones, placed widely differing values on the alley — $184,000 and $22,500 respectively — and have themselves become the subject of debate.
At a town board meeting in Montauk on Tuesday, Kyle Paseka Drumm, who is the operations manager for the hotel, called the renovation “fabulous,” and decried what she described as a deliberate political effort to derail it.
“Everyone in the community loves it,” she said. She urged town board members to do everything possible to help the project go forward “in spite of all the political aggravation and upsets that are going on. There is a time frame, and this has to get done for the benefit of our community, and the infighting has to stop.”
“We don’t want to be dictated [to] by people in East Hampton telling us what we should or shouldn’t do,” she said. Within 24 hours, as of yesterday, she said, 150 Montauk residents had signed a petition she is circulating expressing support for the Montauk Beach House project and asking the town board to “make all reasonable efforts to support” it “so it can be completed by the peak summer season.”
“I support this project,” Councilwoman Sylvia Overby told Ms. Paseka Drumm at Tuesday’s meeting. “But I also want everyone to be on a level playing field . . . it’s about process.” Rather than actually hold a referendum, the Democrats have said they would accept the sale at a price based on a town appraisal.
Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson provided a list of 20 sales of town properties, ranging from 1993 through 2005, under previous administrations, 19 of which took place without appraisals being conducted, he said.
Referring to the prior sales without an appraisal, and advice from John Jilnicki, the town attorney, that the board could proceed without one, Councilman Dominick Stanzione said that “it’s not unreasonable of me to rely on that prior practice.”
“At the same time, asking for an appraisal is not unheard of,” Ms. Overby said.
“The economic ripple of these places is significant,” Mr. Wilkinson said of the hotel project, which he said “is going to do nothing but rise the tide for all of Montauk. There’s no hiding that I am pro-business, because it brings jobs,” he said.
Ms. Paseka Drumm said yesterday that local contractors had been hired for the job, and were continuing work, except for construction of the office, for which the stop-work order was in place.
Meanwhile, the town clerk’s office is working this week to verify the 630 signatures on the petition calling for a referendum on the alleyway sale, which was submitted by the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee last week. The number of signatures goes beyond the minimum required by state law, which offers the town board the option to rescind the resolution of sale should it wish to avoid holding a public vote.
Carole Brennan, the deputy town clerk, said Tuesday that the last time a petition calling for a referendum was submitted was in 1999, calling for the town to purchase land in Stony Hill that became a golf course.
“The referendum is causing the delay” for the hotel, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said at Tuesday’s meeting. She defended the originally proposed sale price as fair and comparable to similar sales. In fact, she said, she believes that the town may have lost its property rights for the section of the alley bisecting the Ronjo property through adverse possession.
Two different appraisals, one commissioned by the Democratic committee and the other by Mr. Siedlick and Mr. Jones, placed widely differing values on the alley.
“The fact that Mr. Wilkinson made a flippant comment — a joke — should not have given rise to this level of animosity,” she said, referring to the supervisor’s repeated assertion that he had pulled the $35,000 sale price “out of the air.”
The alleyway portion, Ms. Quigley said, “cannot be used separately as its own lot.” So, she said, the value placed on it by the appraiser hired by the Democratic Committee “is completely off the mark.”
“This could have been resolved much quicker if it hadn’t been for you and Mr. Wilkinson stopping the process,” said Rona Klopman, an Amagansett resident who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. When a neighbor of town land on Blue Jay Way in East Hampton approached the town about buying a small strip of adjacent public land, “I remember Ms. Quigley saying she had to have an appraisal” before the $5,000 sale could go through.
Ms. Quigley said that “an informal assessment by an appraiser” rather than a formal appraisal was done.
“This place has been targeted in a political game, and it is completely inappropriate,” Ms. Quigley said to Ms. Overby on Tuesday. “I have been told by several employees that you are on the phone in your office several hours a day going over how to get the Ronjo.”
“This whole thing is about a process,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “This whole thing is about a board that came in two years ago that had, probably, amongst ourselves, 90-plus years of corporate experience, that tried to bring in business practices. This is about the East Hampton Democratic Party seizing an opportunity to expose this, to go after Montauk’s growth, and I’m not going to let that happen.”
“I have not been blocking it at every turn,” Councilwoman Overby said yesterday. “I have been trying to get it to go through. Absolutely I have asked for information on the project. I can’t support a project without the information, and she’s turning that into a negative,” she said in response to Ms. Quigley’s comments.
“I supported Mr. Siedlick when he came to my office and asked for my help,” she said. “I thought it was gracious of Mr. Siedlick to reach out.” Ms. Overby saw his offer to obtain an appraisal while the town board put the original sale resolution on hold as a way to resolve the situation.
“I was shocked that the board voted down suspending the resolution,” she said. Had that course of action, proposed at a meeting last month, begun, she said, the sale could be moving ahead by now at an agreed-upon price.
“Everything we’re doing is above board,” Ms. Paseka Drumm of the Montauk Beach House said yesterday. “Time is of the essence.”