About 80 people wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag and the slogan, “Tunited We Stand,” rallied in front of the Sloppy Tuna club in Montauk on Tuesday before arriving en masse at a town board meeting, ferried in 10 liveried black Escalades, to protest a court action by the town against the club, which has received numerous citations for overcrowding and noise violations.
Later that day, a State Supreme Court judge in Central Islip denied the town’s request for a temporary restraining order enjoining the club from playing music without having a town music permit. According to John Jilnicki, the East Hampton town attorney, the town had also sought to have the court require the club to comply with the maximum occupancy limit of 99 people set by its certificate of occupancy.
On a recent Saturday night, town fire marshals and police shut the club down for a time in order to empty it of a number of patrons.
The nightclub supporters charged that the Tuna had been targeted by the town, a charge town officials denied. “I have been the best supporter in the Town of East Hampton of business, especially in the town of Montauk,” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said.
Before Drew Doscher, an owner of the club, purchased the former Nick’s and renovated it, “I sat with them, and said, we will do whatever we can to help you create that place,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
Mr. Doscher acknowledged the meeting. “I thought we had an excellent relationship,” he told Mr. Wilkinson. “Something changed over the last year.”
“We are a member of the community with 55 employees, 35 of whom are local residents. The owner has invested millions to upgrade the building for safety, installing handicap access, sidewalks. It’s been here as a club since 1976,” said Kieran J. Conlon, a lawyer for the Sloppy Tuna.
“You have a responsibility . . . to apply the law equally and fairly,” Mr. Conlon said.
Sloppy Tuna staffers argued with Mr. Wilkinson about whether he had taken pictures of the club and sent police officers there. The supervisor said he regularly drives around Montauk to check on conditions at all the clubs.
“You can drive around and see any establishment in this town is overcrowded,” one man called out. “And we cite every one of them,” Mr. Wilkinson replied. “No you don’t,” members of the audience replied.
Mr. Conlon said that before “millions of dollars” had been spent to renovate the club, it was “zoned” for 265 people, but the town had reduced the allowable occupancy to 99. To reduce the maximum occupancy “is in essence putting them out of business,” he said.
The capacity was set at the issuance of a new certificate of occupancy, Mr. Jilnicki said Tuesday, and was agreed upon by both parties — town officials and the club’s owners.
Also at question is whether or not the club, classified under zoning as both a restaurant and a nightclub, must have a music entertainment permit and whether a sprinkler system is required.
Mr. Doscher said a sprinkler system was not initially required. But, he said, “I will comply; I will do whatever the law says.”
However, he added, “I feel it’s a personal vendetta against us. I’ll abide by the laws, but the laws keep changing.”
“We had a meeting a month ago, and nothing’s been done,” Mr. Jilnicki said to him.
Councilman Theresa Quigley criticized those who complained about the Sloppy Tuna. “What the neighbors of this institution in Montauk are doing is unfair, unneighborly, uncivil,” she said. In previous years, she said, there were no noise complaints. “I think it’s a purely political ploy,” she said, “. . . because it’s a Republican majority.”
However, she told the club supporters, once town officials have been informed of a potential problem, they can’t ignore them. “And if the law as it’s written says there is a problem,” officials must respond, she said. “I didn’t write the code. I think it’s unreasonable,” she said.
“We are a tourist community,” she said. “And yes, you have to put up with it for three months, unless you don’t want it to be a tourist community. That’s who we are. Put up with it.”
“I’m glad to see you here,” she told the crowd. “Because it’s time that the business community comes out and says how difficult it is for them. But we’re told that there are violations at the Sloppy Tuna,” she added. “This isn’t a vendetta.”
“The noise is really, really intrusive,” said a resident of Hopkins Avenue in Montauk, which he said is “seven and a half” blocks away. “I’ve gone there multiple times myself,” he said. “They’ve turned it down. By the time I get home 10 minutes later, they’ve turned it up again.”
“If this institution existed since whenever. . . . Unfortunately, we can’t all live in silence,” Ms. Quigley said. “When you live in the hub of a community that’s vibrant — and Montauk is vibrant these days — there’s going to be noise.”
John Behan, a former state assemblyman who came to the board meeting with the club supporters, said the first job he had after returning to Montauk from Vietnam was working the door at what was then the Pirate’s Den. The condos and motels now surrounding the downtown site were not yet built, he said. Neighbors now complaining about the noise are “like the guy who moves in next to a horse ranch and then complains he can’t stand the smell of horse shit,” he said to thunderous applause.
Even with no music playing, a Sloppy Tuna employee said, the noise of patrons talking exceeds, at a recent measurement of 64 decibels, the 55-decibel level limit for nighttime noise prescribed in the town code.
That’s the problem, said Chris Jones, the owner of another downtown establishment, the Montauk Beach House. “You have a town code that is so gray and so contradictory that it makes it almost impossible to interpret or enforce.” Even raindrops create sound that exceeds the nighttime noise decibel limit, he said. “It’s placing businesses in . . . an impossible position. We can’t win, whatever we do.”
He suggested that those interested work together to address the issues, because, he said, “the way we’re operating as a community . . . it’s just going to end up in State Supreme Court.”
Although board members said that they do not direct code enforcement efforts, Pat Lukzewska, a Montauk resident, said that the board influences enforcement through the budget, when allocating funds for staffing. And, she added, referring to Mr. Jones’s motel, “It’s embarrassing when a business opens without the proper permits, and they have town officials in attendance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.” (The Beach House has recently been cited for violations as well.)
Mr. Wilkinson, the town official in question, laughed. “And what is wrong with a town official opening up a business in support of the business community?” he asked before telling Ms. Lukzewska, “You haven’t told me a thing. Give me some metrics.”
“Why can’t there be a ‘three strikes, you’re out’ policy — for the season — if you break blatant laws,” asked Frans Preidel, who, with a cottage “five feet from the Sloppy Tuna’s deck and walls,” between the club and the ocean, is “probably the most directly affected.”
He said that in the past he had successfully communicated with the club owners, but that this year, “they decided that their bottom line was more important than being good citizens to the town and their neighbors.”
“As much as I respect . . . the ability to do business, the community is none the better because of it,” he said.
With Reporting by Russell Drumm