Authors Night at 555 Approved Despite Objections

Library fund-raiser not universally liked
Robert A. Caro signed books at a past Authors Night. Durell Godfrey

A debate over the East Hampton Library’s annual Authors Night fund-raiser highlighted a schism on the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday, with one member siding with Amagansett residents who oppose holding the two-day event in their hamlet.

Holding Authors Night at 555 Montauk Highway, a 19-acre property purchased by the town in 2014 with community preservation fund money, is a “slap in the face to Amagansett residents,” said Jim MacMillan, chairman of the hamlet’s citizens advisory committee. “People like it as the low-key place it is,” he said, recalling the uproar over a 2011 proposal for a music festival at the site and a later plan, put forth by its then-owner, for an upscale housing development for senior citizens. Both were ultimately abandoned, though 555 does host the annual Soldier Ride, a benefit for the Wounded Warrior Project. 

Authors Night, along with a children’s fair on the following day, was held at the 555 Montauk Highway site for the first time last August. Previously, it had taken place on the field at 4 Maidstone Lane in East Hampton Village. That space, which is private property, is no longer available. 

Mr. MacMillan recalled that Larry Cantwell, who was then town supervisor and the town board’s liaison to the advisory committee, had been receptive to the community’s wishes for the 555 property, namely the preservation of open space. “Once Larry left, all those plans seem to have vanished,” he said. “Next thing, a private fund-raising event for East Hampton Library, attracting 2,000 cars.” He complained that last year Councilman David Lys, the current liaison, had brought the plan to hold Authors Night in the hamlet to the committee “as a done deal, end of discussion.” 

The committee’s feelings were not relayed to the town board, he said, nor did the board explain its decision. “That weekend was a dangerous situation,” Mr. MacMillan said, describing a hamlet overwhelmed by traffic. It was more than a safety issue, he said, predicting that events at 555 Montauk Highway “will depreciate the value of our properties. We were quite surprised to hear the applicant was back a second time this year. . . . We have no representation for Amagansett on the town board. We don’t want it spoiled by people who don’t live here.” 

He asked that the board not approve Authors Night at the 555 property, “and show the community that you are listening to us.” 

John Broderick, another member of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee, suggested that Soldier Ride was “a precedent to allow the library benefit, which last year was presented to us as a done deal.” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc disagreed, telling Mr. Broderick that Authors Night had been discussed at several of the board’s work sessions. “I wouldn’t say there was no opportunity for the public” to make its views known, he said. 

“A large majority of people on the C.A.C. knew nothing,” Mr. Broderick said. 

Councilman Jeff Bragman, who has regularly disagreed with his fellow town board members, sided with Mr. MacMillan and Mr. Broderick. “I think Soldier Ride is a recreational event and does fit with the purpose we bought [555] for,” he said, but “I happen to agree with these Amagansett residents.” The land was purchased to preserve open space and for agricultural and recreational purposes, he noted. “That does not include an elegant cocktail party for the library. . . . I would prefer them to find another location. To me, it’s not recreation, it’s not agricultural, it’s not open space.”

Soldier Ride is a fund-raiser, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, in which participants leave the property, cycle along a route, and return at its conclusion. There is “no better purpose” for such a site than an event to promote libraries and literacy, he said.

“When we sit as town board members, we also have an obligation to honor the commitment we made when we used taxpayer money” to purchase property, Mr. Bragman said. “I don’t think the library, worthy as it is, belongs on this property. They are making money on land that we preserved for open space and agriculture.”

Mr. Bragman had a point, said Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, “but the library is also a tax-supported institution. When we can raise funds for it, this is an appropriate way” to do so. “It’s part of our community character. Our library is important to us. . . . I think it’s important to continue to have that fund-raiser.” Moreover, she said, she herself attended Authors Night last year and “saw no disruption,” nor increased traffic on back roads, as Mr. MacMillan described. 

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said that the children’s fair attracts an even larger crowd than Authors Night, “and it’s free. You’re saying it’s a fund-raising event,” she said. “It’s free.” 

Few sites in the town can accommodate an event as large as Authors Night, Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It was very problematic where it was in the village,” he said, citing a shortage of parking and the need to shuttle people between the event and the Main Beach parking lot. “Most of us have consistently viewed this property as one that contained Soldier Ride.” Apparently,” he said, Mr. Bragman “has no problem with that continuing to exist.”

  For 362 days a year, there is no activity on the 555 site, the supervisor pointed out. Further, he said, the board is charged with balancing the various interests and demands of the entire community. There are some in Amagansett who do not feel Authors Night is an appropriate use of the site, as well as “quite a few who do,” he said. “We heard from them last year.”

“What’s most troubling,” Mr. Broderick countered, “is, the end game is obviously setting us up” to host many more events at 555. “Now it’s precedented in.” The way the matter has been handled has left him feeling “a little dopey,” he said. “First, because I feel we were treated like dopes last year . . . but now I feel dopey in entrusting you with the management of this property.” 

Mr. Van Scoyoc asked if Mr. Broderick was aware of a proposal to store modular housing units on the site for up to three months. That had been presented to the advisory committee, Mr. Broderick replied, and no objections were raised. 

“Where does that fit into open space?” the supervisor asked. 

Mr. Bragman took exception to the question. “It’s sort of disappointing to have the community bludgeoned with that,” he said. “I really think they deserve some credit for going along with that on the theory that it’s temporary.” 

Later on, the board voted to authorize special-event permits to hold Authors Night and the children’s fair at the 555 Montauk Highway site on Aug. 10 and 11, respectively. Mr. Bragman cast the lone dissenting vote.