Village Inns Make Plea for More Amenities

Businesses want special village zoning district; mayor says it’s a ‘dead issue’
Jenny Baker, the owner of the Maidstone Hotel, told the East Hampton Village Board that her business was struggling and needed zoning permission to add amenities such as a gym and a spa to become more financially viable. Jamie Bufalino

Last Thursday’s meeting of the East Hampton Village Board began with a plea to change zoning to allow expanded uses of historic inns and reached a crescendo when one village business owner asserted that the business district was in the midst of an existential crisis and board members said proposals to remedy the situation would go nowhere.

The zoning issue was raised in a petition presented by Leonard Ackerman, an attorney working on behalf of the Maidstone Hotel, which is seeking to add amenities it says are necessary for survival.

“I’m currently at a crossroads,” said Jenny Baker, the owner of the Maidstone for the past 10 years. “There are constant guest demands that we cannot meet. We are struggling. We’ve been speaking to other inns and they seem to be struggling too.”

The negative assessment of the state of the business district came from Barbara Layton, the owner of Babette’s restaurant. Right now, Ms. Layton said, the village, with chain stores owned by luxury brands, “has become nothing more than the Rodeo Drive of the East End.” She compared the district unfavorably to Sag Harbor, whose streets, she said, “are alive with people morning through evening.” She said the decline in business in East Hampton during the summer “was strongly indicative of a dying village.” 

   Mr. Ackerman proposed revitalizing the historic inns by adopting what is known as a limited overlay zoning district, which would allow the Maidstone and others, including the Baker House 1650, the Hedges Inn, the 1770 House, and the Palm at the Huntting Inn‚ to break loose from the regulations that arise because they are in residential districts. As a result, they would be able to add amenities such as spas, gyms, beauty services, and children’s play areas. The proposed new zoning would also allow music and dancing, which proponents say would make the inns better suited for events like weddings and corporate retreats. 

The proposal for an overlay zoning district for inns received the backing of Antonella Bertello, the owner of the Baker House. In a letter to the board, Ms. Bertello said, “The numbers for Baker House’s January were the worst that we’ve had in my history as the owner.” Anne Chaisson, the executive director of the Hamptons International Film Festival, and Matko Tomicic, the executive director of the LongHouse Reserve, also voiced support. 

The members of the board, although expressing concern about the general downturn in economic activity, were roundly dismissive of a special zoning district, however. “I just want to remind everybody that the people who bought these properties bought them knowing their limitations and, in my mind, they’re requesting a considerable expansion of uses and facilities in detriment to the neighborhood, Richard Lawler said. Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. was more blunt. Calling the proposal alarming, the mayor sought to dispel any notion that the proposed new zoning district would be enacted. “It’s a dead issue,” he said, citing a negative impact that would arise on residents’ quality of life. “It’s not going anywhere.” 

Other topics of discussion were septic system upgrades and the future of fast food in the village. The board continues to debate whether to mandate low-nitrogen septic systems, but seems to be leaning toward piggybacking on the Town of East Hampton’s recent law, which requires low-nitrogen systems only for new construction and major renovations.

 As for fast food, the law prevents retail stores from preparing “individual portions of food on site” and from serving “food or beverages over the counter in a ready-to-consume state,” although a number of businesses throughout the village have been doing so since before the law was adopted. The board decided to take a closer look at how other municipalities define fast food and to reconsider the wording of a future prohibition.

The Maidstone Inn in East Hampton Village during a recent snowfallDurell Godfrey