Tourism Plan Needed to Help Stem the Tide

East Hampton Town needs a summer plan. Relatively recently, officials presented a set of hamlet-specific vision documents intended to guide redevelopment and new projects in the commercial centers with an eye toward a mix of business and residential needs and an emphasis on affordable living for workers. These studies were quite nice and contained some exciting ideas. What the hamlet plan authors did not do was look at the reality of East Hampton’s resort, day-trip, and short-term rental economy in a coherent way. As good as the study was, without acknowledging the transformations the town has undergone and offering some direction for the future, the work was only half done. Time is of the essence.

The reality is that East Hampton has changed from a mostly quiet place with summer rentals into a destination complete with a handful of reality-TV shows and a multitude of boldface names. Shoppers pour in to browse the village’s Main Street boutiques, most run by out-of-town companies that give nothing back to the community. Montauk draws thousands on sunny weekends for the beaches, fishing, and nightlife. Airbnb and other unregulated rental services bring in hundreds, if not an even greater number of visitors. As a result, roads, essential services, public spaces, and the general quality of life are affected negatively. And almost all of this is based on long-ago zoning decisions while officials went far too easy on violations, calling them in the obfuscating parlance of officialdom, pre-existing, nonconforming uses.

Now, having been either unwilling or unable to stem the flood, town officials are seeking to accommodate it, planning a costly sewage system for parts of Montauk, for starters, which will help lock in permanently the mistakes now in place. The authors of the hamlet studies more or less averted their gazes, proposing traffic circles and portable houses to deal with the influx but never trying to identify and deal with the root causes. It was not their fault, though, as direction comes from the top, in this case the well-meaning, if shortsighted, town board that commissioned the analyses. Remember, this was for the most part the same group that greenlighted the sandbagging of the Montauk beach, breaking the law in the process.

The lack of a long-term plan to deal with the summer hordes also comes down to residents, who for the most part have not spoken out as a whole about the changes to East Hampton wrought by its international renown. Until enough taxpayers raise their voices to say they want their town back, nothing is going to change. In fact, given the corporate money now backing many commercial projects, things could get a whole lot worse.

For lack of a better word, East Hampton needs a tourism master plan, which should be produced in conjunction with the Villages of East Hampton and Sag Harbor. This would address current conditions, including the maximum number of seasonal visitors possible under present rules, as well as the number that actually would be ideal. Considering development of the commercial centers in the absence of an overarching vision is a guarantee of failure.