Close to two dozen speakers at a hearing before the East Hampton Town Board last week on proposed town legislation requiring bars or restaurants to have entertainment permits expressed unanimous opposition to the law. The legislation was billed as an attempt to rein in the numbers of people gathering outdoors at those businesses, in response to complaints from nearby residents about crowds.
The law would require any establishment offering live music or other entertainment to first obtain a town permit and would allow the town to review and possibly revoke them if there were three zoning code violations within three years.
Business owners decried an additional regulation that could curtail their ability to maximize their success in the key summer months, while musicians expressed concern about the effect on their opportunities to perform.
And those concerned about the environment, or focused on the heart of the problem — the recent enormous popularity of several long-lived places in Montauk where constant outdoor parties are affecting residents’ lives — discussed the impact of a law that could legalize big crowds in the outdoor areas of bars and restaurants, in addition to their indoor capacity.
Many said that the town already has effective zoning and other laws to address isolated problems, and that they should be better enforced.
“I see a town that has maybe not asserted itself enough when it could have,” John Havlicek said.
Laraine Creegan said she represented 300 businesses, members of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, the owners of which are “adamantly opposed” to the measure. “It’s really an enforcement issue,” she said.
“In my opinion, there’s no reason to do this,” Paul Monte of Gurney’s Inn, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said.
He outlined the numerous regulations to which businesses such as his are subject and said, “To put the onus on business owners to start counting the number of people outside, as well as the number of people inside . . . it’s much ado about nothing, in my opinion.”
While expressing a high opinion of Edward Ecker, the current town police chief, Mr. Monte, and others also questioned the provision in the draft law that would give the authority to set maximum outdoor occupancy numbers for individual establishments to the police chief.
Others were concerned about squelching the summertime activity on which businesses depend. People come here for outdoor enjoyment, Kathy Weiss said. “It seems to me all this new law would do is punish them, and discourage the very people we want to attract. It’s a short enough season without more laws on people and business.” Loud applause followed her comments.
“We are a resort and a second-home owner community, and people come here to be outside,” said Margaret Turner of the East Hampton Business Alliance.
Michael Brosnan read a statement from Montauk Citizens’ Voice, a new business group, expressing its “strong opposition.” Businesses are “highly dependent on this type of attraction” he said, and enacting any new rules now leaves too little time for debate before the summer season.
“This legislation is not the solution the community seeks,” said Jeremy Samuelson of the Group for the East End. If problems from outdoor crowds stem from pre-existing, nonconforming businesses, such as those in residential areas, then the solution should address those and not apply to all businesses, he said.
At the one person per seven square feet standard proposed for setting occupancy, he said, 6,285 people could be allowed to gather on a one-acre yard. “From an environmental perspective, the greatest concern with this . . . lies in septic concerns,” he said. “The infrastructure on the property should be able to accommodate” the numbers allowed, he said.
Using Ruschmeyer’s restaurant in Montauk as an example, he said, and calculating about half of its property as open outdoor space, “more than 9,000 people could be patrons at this property and need to use the bathroom. How can this not be perceived as anything but an expansion of a pre-existing use?” he asked.
The density the new law would allow is “so out of line . . . it’s ridiculous,” Bill Akin said.
Mr. Samuelson said he wondered how many people would visit Montauk if there were high bacteria counts in open water, or algal blooms. “Our environment is our economy,” he said to applause.
“In my opinion, this would allow an extraordinary expansion of permitted uses in restaurants and bars, all without the review of our Planning Department or planning board,” Richard Kahn said. “At the same time, it would throw a hand grenade into our zoning code.”
Debra Foster, a former town councilwoman, characterized the draft legislation as an attempt to undo the present zoning code, which she called “very serious business.”
“You need to go by [State Environmental Quality Review Act] review, and the town code, and the Suffolk County Department of Health,” she said. She said she had discussed the proposed law with a Health Department official and when she told him of the maximum occupancy that could be allowed, “he couldn’t speak.” Health Department regulations would supersede any town-imposed occupancy numbers, she said.
Sue Avedon said that the proposal is “legitimizing the expansion of nonconforming uses. Ordinarily that would be subjected to its own individual permit.”
“People focus on ‘nonconforming,’ ” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson responded. “We seem to forget about ‘pre-existing.’ ” As he has persistently done when discussing the subject, he recited the history of restaurants and clubs like the Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s, emphasizing their longevity. “So I have some sympathy for those people,” he said.
Jeffrey Bragman, an attorney hired by Ms. Foster to research the proposed law, said that it does not address the problem of crowding cited by those who have complained to the town. “In fact, to the contrary, it seems to embrace it, and expand it, and make it worse.”
Definitions in the town code detail what can happen at certain kinds of businesses, he said. “You can’t just look out your back window and say, ‘I have a nice yard, I’m going to stick 500 people there.’ ”
“This is a complete repudiation of 20 years of careful, skillful planning that makes East Hampton what it is,” he told the board. “You are blazing through zoning regulations. It’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen a town board even attempt something like this without environmental review.” The audience applauded his comments.
“It’s like a go-ahead for businesses to start a whole new business outdoors,” Jeanne Frankl said. “I’m sure that wasn’t what you meant.”
A number of musicians, who had mobilized a presence at the meeting through Facebook and other means, urged the town board to consider them and their livelihoods.
“We have a remarkable community of very talented musicians here,” who need more opportunities to perform, said Job Potter, also a former councilman.
“It is difficult to survive as a musician out here,” Nancy Atlas said.
“I think that we hear very, very, very, very strongly: no,” said Councilwoman Theresa Quigley at the close of the hearing, adding that she was “especially happy to hear from both sides.” She said the Planning Department was “completely involved in this process,” and that “the specific problem that this law seeks to address is not from a lack of enforcement, it’s one that arises for a lack of a tool to use.”
Mr. Wilkinson discussed the jobs generated by business spending in the community. “And it’s called the economic ripple effect of business,” he said. “I will encourage every business opportunity in this town.”