Listening to Montauk

Residents give Democratic candidates an earful
During a forum at Gurney’s Inn on Monday night, Chris Poli told Democratic candidates for town supervisor and town board that the town should do more to deter businesses that violate the law. Janis Hewitt

    Over the course of two hours Monday night, some 20 people stepped up to a lectern during a Montauk “listen-in” hosted by the Democratic candidates for East Hampton Town supervisor and town board, ticking off a litany of complaints they hope the candidates will address if elected.

    About 100 Montauk residents attended the meeting at Gurney’s Inn, one of several the candidates are holding throughout the town. Their biggest concerns: the increase in nightclubs, erosion, an engineered beach, businesses operating without a proper certificate of occupancy, and a lack of code enforcement.

    Several replies from the supervisor candidate, Larry Cantwell, and his running mates, Job Potter and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, received rounds of applause, but the heartiest came when Mr. Potter told the group that the first thing the Democrats will do if they are sworn into office in January will be to take Fort Pond House off the market. “It just doesn’t make sense to sell that waterfront property,” he said.

    Before the current administration put Fort Pond House on the market in hopes of using its sale to reduce the town’s debt, the house was used by Scouts, writing groups, and others as a community meeting place. The decision to sell it prompted a lawsuit, which is still ongoing.

    There is $40 million in the town’s preservation fund that Mr. Potter said is just sitting in the bank. He said it should be used for a good purpose, and also pointed to eight vacant parcels in the hamlet that would be perfect for preservation.

    Each candidate began the evening by giving a brief history of his or her time on the South Fork. Mr. Cantwell introduced his sister Joan Droebecker, a Montauk resident, who was sitting in the audience. “Everyone knows my sister better than me,” he said.

    Stacey Brosnan was first to the lectern. Her concern is that commercialism has outpaced the community, and she blamed the current town board for allowing the situation. “Code enforcement is no good. Our downtown area is overrun with bars. There is trash all over and cars parked everywhere,” she said, asking, “How do you plan to balance this? What is your vision as a group and how do you plan to reel this in?”

    Mr. Cantwell said that the candidates are aware of the significant concerns regarding the newer hot spots. He said those concerns are no longer about old timers versus newcomers. A balance must be established, he said. The businesses have to learn how to become good neighbors and operate responsibly with the community in mind.

    The first step, he said, is to clarify the town’s code and then enforce it. Many in the audience said that the problem is that the town code is not being enforced. One man who lives in the Culloden area said he has had to change his driving route to the downtown area to avoid the abundance of pedestrians and cars near the Surf Lodge on Edgemere Road. He suggested forming a volunteer code enforcement team that would report violations to code enforcement officials.

    Mr. Cantwell said he thinks a meeting with business owners might help turn things around. “The key word is enforcement,” added Mr. Potter.

    “We’ve all heard the phrase death by a thousand paper cuts. I’m worried that we’re confronting death by hundreds of nightspots,” said Jay Levine, who said that the clubs are presenting a dramatic environmental threat. He charged that previous administrations have failed to address problems related to storms and beach preservation and wondered why nothing has moved forward with the Lake Montauk study. “There doesn’t seem to be a strategy,” he said.

    Climate change, more frequent storms, and rising sea levels, said Mr. Cantwell, are the single most important natural threat facing East Hampton right now. “The potential could be devastating,” he said, adding that a path to recovery and hazard mitigation should be established now before a storm hits.

    Mr. Cantwell credited Supervisor Bill Wilkinson for straightening out the town’s finances and remarked on what a difficult task that was. John Chimples said Mr. Wilkinson cheated because he fixed the finances but ignored other areas of importance. “It’s embarrassing. Public restrooms are a disgrace and roads are crumbling. I would maintain that he didn’t balance the budget, because he cheated by not fixing the infrastructure. The homeowners are being shortchanged,” he said.

    Bill Akin, the former president of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, reminded the group that 82 percent of the town’s tax money comes from homeowners. “We’re getting the short side of it lately,” he said. He has not noticed any new motels, he said, and wondered where all the people that are crowding the hamlet are staying. “Would you favor some form of rental permit process?” he asked the candidates.

    A balance between homeowners and business owners is what’s needed, many said.

    Ed Braun asked the three if they would elevate the dialogue to find an integrative solution between the public and private sector. “If you fail to do that there will be no more Montauk. People won’t come back. Look at Montauk 10 years from now, that’s the greatest thing you can do,” he said.

    Chris Poli chimed in that more people bring more costs. “We have a fixed revenue and this drains our resources. I urge you to think about that,” he said. Code enforcement is being disregarded, he said, adding that some businesses weigh paying a fine against making more money.

    Mr. Poli suggested that the town increase fines for those who violate the code. He suggested town officials let business owners know that the town doesn’t want to close them down but will do so if they don’t operate according to town code. He also suggested threatening the business owners with a new site plan review to get them to cooperate.

    “Balance with a hammer in case they don’t want to work within the fold,” he said.

    Paul Monte, the general manager of Gurney’s Inn and president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce’s board, was one of the last to speak. He said it should not be us versus them but about Montauk. He said erosion should be the number one issue right now and said he is in favor of an engineered beach. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

    He also reminded the crowd that some businesses may seem to be operating outside of what they are allowed but that some of those are in the pre-existing, nonconforming realm. The popularity of the hamlet is raising homeowners’ real estate values, he said. “Montauk’s newfound popularity benefits all of us,” he said.

    “We could use a lot less partisan politics in Town Hall and a lot more trying to do what’s right for the community and Montauk. We have to find a common ground and move forward together,” Mr. Cantwell said, to a final round of applause.