Power Talks in Montauk

East Hampton Town, having made its bed as far as overdevelopment of Montauk is concerned, will now have to sleep in it. After looking away as the hamlet’s small resort operators bent laws, the town is finding it very difficult to enforce discipline in the face of big money. 

Just one of the current challenges is the Duryea’s complex of white-clad buildings on the shore of Fort Pond Bay. Marc Rowan owns the place now and in a legal settlement quietly negotiated with the town attorneys last month, appears to have gotten just about everything he wants to do with the property, including opening a full-service restaurant. Odd, too, is that the town’s unauthorized capitulation came stunningly swiftly — less than a year from the date Mr. Rowan indicated his intention to sue the town in this matter.

Among the expected changes is a newly built restaurant, where up till now only outdoor window service with table runners on demand was allowed. Sure, the town will say the deal is a one-off, but there is the matter of precedent, or, as some might call it, a domino effect. Most dangerous is that in giving in to Mr. Rowan, the town attorneys on their own overturned a 1997 decision by the zoning board of appeals that prohibited a full, sit-down restaurant at Duryea’s.

There is plenty more weirdness surrounding the settlement. During a Feb. 21 town board meeting when the subject came up, the town’s top attorney, Michael Sendlenski, stood up and issued a highly unusual, shouted self-defense, answering criticism from Councilman Jeff Bragman, edging close to resigning then and there as the cameras rolled. Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc visibly took Mr. Sendlenski’s side, nodding vigorously as the attorney spoke, as if coaching from the sidelines, and directing negative comments toward Mr. Bragman. 

Mr. Bragman had clearly hit the wrong (or right) nerve when he criticized the closed-door meetings that led to the settlement and characterized the deal as better for Mr. Rowan than for the town. One point not to be forgotten is that three of the five town attorneys could not work on the Duryea’s matter, apparently for having done business with or for Mr. Rowan previously. However, during his tirade, for all the noise he made, Mr. Sendlenski did not disprove any of Mr. Bragman’s accusations.

In one of the weaker aspects of an already weak settlement, the town will allow tenders to take Duryea’s guests to and from vessels anchored in Fort Pond Bay. This goes along with a prohibition on cruise liners at the Duryea’s pier, but the agreement was notably silent on whether the liners’ passengers might one day make landings via these tenders, as cruise lines do in many destinations around the world. 

Mr. Sendlenski’s office also wrongly agreed to an accelerated timetable for Mr. Rowan’s permit process, making several commitments that appear to force the planning board, Planning Department, and Building Department into an unreasonably fast-paced schedule. What’s more, the agreement narrowly and improperly limited the scope of planning board review, meanwhile overturning a 1997 zoning board decision with paper-thin justification.

Okay, okay, we get it. It is tough to go to court with a well-funded adversary. And in the end, Mr. Rowan’s property appears to be a legal site for a full-blown Hamptons high-end restaurant. But this doesn’t mean the town had to rush to settle the matter. Mr. Bragman and others, like David Buda, a habitual board watcher, have been right to raise questions. Most important at this point is why Mr. Sendlenski signed the deal without prior approval by the entire town board. This is a big deal, and we expect residents will learn a lot more before it is all over.