Motel Sales Mean Worker Housing Crunch

At a Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee Monday night, the hamlet’s perennial need for seasonal employee housing was a focus of discussion.

Bill Akin, who is on the advisory committee’s housing subcommittee, said that several Montauk motels that had been used for seasonal housing have recently been sold, including the Neptune, which was bought by Marc Rowan, co-founder of a billion-dollar private equity fund. Mr. Rowan bought Duryea’s Lobster House two years ago and Ciao! On the Beach last fall.

Other places off the seasonal worker market are the Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s, the motel rooms at Rick’s Crabby Cowboy, and the small cottages at Duffy’s Cottages on East Lake Drive. Some small houses that were rented by transient workers in summer are now being advertised on Airbnb. Altogether, the subcommittee estimated that up to 500 rooms or cottages have been taken off the seasonal housing market.

Members have reached out to Tom Ruhle, director of the town’s Housing Department, who gave them some ideas, Mr. Akin said. “Everybody knows there’s a problem, but nobody knows how big it is,” he said, adding that the  Montauk Chamber of Commerce is polling its members to get a sense of the housing crunch in peak season.

One possible housing site that has been mentioned several times before is on the Circle, the area that abuts the residences on the first block of Camp Hero. Before the 27 houses at Camp Hero, a former Air Force base, were sold to residents, it was used as a trailer park to house enlisted service members. A subcommittee has been researching sites to house the seasonal workers and has suggested the town might consider investing in trailers on the Circle.

In 1996, town officials chose a southwest corner of the Circle to build an adult day care center, which has since been moved to the Montauk Playhouse Community Center. A neighbor was assured there would be no further housing there. Once the day care center moved, the house was put up for sale through the town’s housing lottery and is now owned by a young family.

The site also has a children’s bus stop on it, and residents use it frequently as a playground, dog park, and walking track. Some store their boats there in winter. Camp Hero has always had water problems that continue to this day, so providing water could also prove troublesome.

Laura Michaels, an advisory committee member, wondered if the town could have made better use of a piece of land directly across the street from the Neptune Motel that was recently cleared to add 45 more parking spaces in the downtown area, by using it instead for seasonal housing.

The subcommittee is also looking at little pockets of space throughout the hamlet where other seasonal housing could be built. Some members suggested an area in the harbor for a dormitory-style building, and allowing apartments over businesses. Others, however, said that adding more summer housing would attract more people to the already bulging hamlet.

Ray Cortell, a committee member, asked why people who work in Montauk have to live there, too. “People go to work in Manhattan every day and don’t live there,” he said.

Committee members agreed that once the hamlet study meetings take place more solutions might be found.

Before the talk of housing began, East Hampton Town Police Chief Mike Sarlo and Joseph Kearney, the new Montauk precinct commander, went over some of the ways in which police will deal with this summer’s influx. The department maintains a strong presence on social media, they said, alerting people that the Town of East Hampton has zero tolerance for those who break the law.

Most businesses are cooperating with the law, Chief Sarlo said; even 7-Eleven has promised to lock up its beer coolers by 3 a.m. to avoid all-night partying. The Surf Lodge, he said, was very cooperative last summer and eliminated a lot of complaints. “It’s better, it’s improved, but we will keep working on it.”

Businesses have been warned that stiff fines will be imposed for breaking the law, and that the fines will increase with each violation, the chief said.

Peter Van Scoyoc, the committee’s town board liaison, said the town’s concern was not to hurt the businesses but to work with them. “I committed to you last year that we will continue to fight. A lot of things have already been turned around, and we plan to continue to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, a traffic consultant’s proposal to make several downtown Montauk streets one way in order to create more parking and try to tame summertime traffic will not be pursued, East Hampton Town officials assured concerned residents on Tuesday.

Half a dozen Montaukers, some of whom had been at Monday’s meeting, attended a town board meeting in East Hampton the next morning to voice their concerns. Major changes will not be made until an upcoming hamlet study has been completed, Supervisor Larry Cantwell told them.

“It’s very late in the year” to implement changes before the summer, Mr. Cantwell said. And, he added, “there’s no strong consensus of opinion that that’s something we should do.”

However, a few temporary changes aimed at increasing pedestrian and vehicular safety are under consideration for a trial run this summer. They include blocking off an access road on the north side of the Plaza for designated taxi parking, and adding 10 more lights that meet dark-sky standards to existing poles on the south side of Main Street.

Anything done on a trial basis can be reversed or modified, Mr. Cantwell stressed. The proposed changes are expected to be discussed at a board work session at the Montauk Firehouse on Tuesday at 10 a.m., and interested parties have been invited to be there. Specifics on the plans are on the town’s website.

“I feel like you’re fixing a problem that doesn’t need to be fixed,” Bonnie Brady told the board, questioning several of the details. Rather than relying on recommendations from an out-of-town consultant, she said, decision-makers should look to the people of Montauk for input.

“I think this is great for a start,” said Laraine Creegan, head of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “Some of them are good,” she said of the ideas. “Some of them are perhaps doable.”

“But,” she added, “everyone should know about it so that they can weigh in.”

Traffic consultants had visited the hamlet last Labor Day weekend to observe the peak traffic flow, and made recommendations designed to improve the extreme conditions.

“I think preparing a traffic study based on peak use disenfranchises the local people for 9 or 10 months of the year,” said Thomas Muse. Changes that might be useful or necessary to deal with the summertime influx, “for the sake of our guests for a couple of months,” such as creating one-way streets, might not be warranted or desired during the rest of the year, he said. “We want to make it safe, but we don’t want to bend over backwards and really redo our lives for the sake of those two months.”

“We’re looking at trying a couple of things temporarily that could be changed very easily,” Mr. Cantwell replied.

“If we’re going to make these modifications it should be because there’s real data,” Mr. Muse insisted. He said the board should look at statistics regarding accident spots and the like, rather than relying on assumptions or theoretical recommendations.

“I’m glad that the board is taking a crawl-before-you-jump-off-the-cliff approach, taking some temporary measures,” he said. But he cautioned against moving too far ahead before completion of the hamlet study process, which will include gathering opinions and information from residents to map out future plans for Montauk as well as East Hampton’s other hamlets.