Montaukers Shout Down Hamlet Study

Pleas for delay of any beach retreat plan
Laura Tooman, president of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, was among a minority of speakers voicing support for the Montauk hamlet study on Tuesday. Christopher Walsh

Though members of the East Hampton Town Board and a consultant engaged to conduct hamlet studies emphasized that no businesses will be compelled to relocate away from Montauk’s ocean shoreline, nor is any action at all imminent, several residents insisted on Tuesday that the board pause further planning for the hamlet’s future until there is additional discussion and study.

The hamlet studies started in 2015, with public input beginning the following year. The consultants, including Lisa Liquori of Fine Arts and Sciences, a former town planning director, have presented updates since then based on public comment from individuals, the hamlets’ citizens advisory committees, chambers of commerce, and East Hampton Village. The goal is to adopt recommendations for each hamlet to be incorporated into the town’s comprehensive plan.

One far-reaching recommendation to emerge from the Montauk study is a planned retreat from the ocean shoreline, with its motels relocated to less developed areas downtown. That recommendation “does not envision buying all the oceanfront properties,” Ms. Liquori said, but rather a transfer of development rights arrangement, providing business owners an option to re-establish their facilities landward.

With Ms. Liquori scheduled to review comments at the board’s meeting on Tuesday, an email from the Montauk Chamber of Commerce went out to members on Monday. “For Montauk it is important you attend this meeting, before such a major decision to have . . . Montauk’s Downtown Reformulation strategy put into the COMP plan,” it said. “There is much more work needed and further examination and study to be completed to determine its real impact on the community and the local economy. That has not been done yet!”

More than a dozen Montauk residents, some of them business owners or managers, spoke to the board, most criticizing what they characterized as a rush to codify unworkable or, at minimum, undesirable plans.

“Premature adoption of this extreme retreat strategy,” absent a thorough review, “will be devastating to Montauk’s economy,” affecting jobs, property values, and quality of life, said Laraine Creegan, the executive director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. In fact, she said, there is no urgency to
dopt the study’s recommendations in their current form. Rather than adoption, recommendations should be “assigned to a newly formed committee to analyze the idea and understand all options available to protect our downtown in the future.”

Ms. Creegan said that a “thoughtful, well-planned strategy of resilience,” starting with the rebuilding of the beaches, is needed to maintain Montauk’s reputation as a first-rate summer destination. If warranted, “certain elements” of the recommendations, such as beach renourishment, wastewater treatment, and a sidewalk extending from the Long Island Rail Road station to downtown could be adopted and implemented.

Steve Kalimnios, who owns the oceanfront Royal Atlantic Beach Resort, predicted a near 50-percent loss of rooms at motels relocated from the shoreline. To accept the recommendations of a study that he called incomplete and lacking an examination of its feasibility “would be reckless and irresponsible,” he said, and “have dire consequences to the entire community.”

Citing his own study, he said that Montauk’s motels directly and indirectly represent up to $400 million of annual revenue in the town. But rather than a methodical approach to solving Montauk’s problems, “we’ve gone from defining the problem” to “running for the hills.” He too asked for further study.

Paul Monte, the Chamber of Commerce’s president, spoke of widespread support for beach preservation, wastewater treatment, and seasonal housing. But with respect to a retreat from the shoreline, “it’s really not ready for prime time.” To “reformulate and reconfigure the downtown of Montauk” will have a huge impact on the community, he said. “We’ve been told it’s only a vision,” he said of the study’s recommendations. “I beg to differ.” Once incorporated into the comprehensive plan, “every application before planning or zoning is going to be viewed a lot differently than it is currently.” That should concern all stakeholders, not just beachfront motels, he said. Such a move would have “vast impacts on property values” and property owners’ rights.

Moving quickly “may hurt the very constituents you’re trying to help,” Mr. Monte said. There is “too much at stake, too much unknown, to prematurely adopt that portion of the hamlet study and make it part of the comprehensive plan.”

Kirby Marcantonio called a planned relocation of structures from the shoreline “by far the most radical look at how planning can transform a community,” and complained of a “somewhat academic approach to relocating properties, as if they belong on a Monopoly board.”

But Lou Cortese, representing the Ditch Plains Association, said that concerns delineated in the 2005 comprehensive plan and the hamlet study “differ only in the intensification that’s occurred since 2005, and the amped-up sense of urgency that now exists.” He said the board should not postpone adoption of the plan, but rather confront the “significant problems we face with projects, not more deliberations. We’ve had enough freakin’ deliberations,” he said. “Let’s move forward with getting things done.”

Mr. Kalimnios disagreed, and told the board that “the division in the community tells you where we are.”

After an hour of public comment, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc drew a distinction between identifying a long-term vision for Montauk and its implementation. The town is engaging all stakeholders to determine impacts of any individual proposal, he said, whether a traffic circle at the intersection of Flamingo Avenue and West Lake Drive — a broadly popular idea — or a retreat from rising sea level.

Montauk’s downtown areas, particularly those lying between Fort Pond and the ocean, “are at risk of inundation from any major hurricane, or sea level rise over time,” he said. “We need to be proactive and start thinking about how we keep that economic engine of Montauk safe and intact, and make that transition. I don’t think we disagree about any of those basic principles. We’re really getting hung up on what the process is to achieve that.”

Though the process that is underway, he said later in the meeting, the comprehensive plan “becomes a living, active document that will require interaction with the public to determine what is implemented, how that vision is formed.” That vision, he said, “can evolve through that process.”

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said after the meeting that relocating a business would happen only when a business owner was willing, and that the town board does not want to reduce the number of hotel rooms or other commercial entities in the hamlet. “We just want in the code some opportunity for them to reply to sea level rise. We see this happening,” she said. “We see it right now.”

The board will hold more work sessions to refine the hamlet studies based on residents’ feedback, possibly with input from consulting engineers, Ms. Overby said. Environmental review would follow before submission to the Suffolk County Planning Commission. Depending on its response, “at that point, we could adopt some or all of the hamlet studies.” That would not happen before the summer, she said.

Another announcement of interest to Montauk’s business community came when Jeanne Carrozza, the town’s senior purchasing agent, told the board that Bistrian Materials was the apparent low bidder for a downtown beach replenishment ahead of the upcoming tourist season. Its bid of $1.099 million for 34,000 cubic yards of sand delivered in place is comparable to last year’s bid, she said.