An ‘I Do’ Undone By ‘You Can’t’

Hedges Inn events nixed as party laws loom
Joanne Lester O’Brien pleaded with the East Hampton Village Board to reconsider its decision to deny a permit for her son’s March 31 wedding reception at the Hedges Inn.
Joanne Lester O’Brien pleaded with the East Hampton Village Board to reconsider its decision to deny a permit for her son’s March 31 wedding reception at the Hedges Inn. Jamie Bufalino

On Friday, just two weeks and a day before her son’s wedding reception at the Hedges Inn in East Hampton, Joanne Lester O’Brien learned that East Hampton Village had denied a permit for the March 31 event and five others planned at the inn this year. 

“When my son got engaged last summer, it made all the sense in the world for us to have this wedding with our friends instead of at an UpIsland wedding factory,” she told the village board on Friday. Her son had signed a contract with the inn months ago. She found out that the plans were in jeopardy just an hour before Friday’s village board meeting.  

Linda Riley, the village’s attorney, and Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. insisted that the decision was not based on a proposed amendment to the village’s mass assembly law that would enact more stringent permitting guidelines for special events at private residences and commercial properties and prohibit the village’s inns from holding events outdoors or in tents. Rather, Ms. Riley said, the permits were denied because special events at the inn are not consistent with village code, the property’s certificate of ccupancy, or with the legally-established pre-existing nonconforming uses for the site. 

Nevertheless, Ms. O’Brien joined members of the clergy, the lawyer for the Hedges Inn, and others who had events planned there in speaking out against the proposed amendment at a hearing on Friday. 

Christopher Kelley, the inn’s lawyer, said that the Hedges had received a letter the evening before the meeting informing it that six permit applications it had submitted for events this year had been denied. “This letter we got last night reverses the history of the last several years where the village has granted permits and recognized this special events use at this site,” said Mr. Kelley, who added that he was particularly concerned that the permit denials would upend plans for wedding receptions scheduled to take place at the inn, including that of Ms. O’Brien’s son, Kevin O’Brien. 

As Ms. O’Brien spoke, she sounded near tears as she told the trustees about the now-tentative plans for the wedding and about how her friendship with Jennifer Lilja, the general manager of the Hedges Inn, and Ms. Lilja’s mother had swayed the family’s decision on the venue.

“How can they do this to us based on a change in the law that hasn’t taken effect yet?” she asked later in the week. 

Charlotte Sasso, the owner of Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett, also spoke at the hearing in opposition to the proposed law. Ms. Sasso had held a party for her son’s bar mitzvah at the Hedges Inn last April, after applying for and receiving a permit. She told the board that she really had no other choice of venue for her event, which, she said, had approximately 135 guests in attendance. “It was April 1, so a lot of places were not open. The only solution was to put up a tent on the Hedges property,” she said. 

Stu Kaitz, the father of a bride-to-be whose wedding reception is on the books for June 9 at the Hedges Inn, expressed dismay that the village was suddenly changing course on allowing events to take place there. “We’re 84 days away,” he said. “All the plans are in place. I didn’t think I’d be sitting here, when I have a contract with the Hedges Inn, talking about can we have our event. So many events have been had there successfully,” he said. 

Among other things, the proposed law requires that a permit application be submitted at least 21 days in advance for anyone holding a gathering of 50 or more people that takes place in whole or in part outdoors. That drew criticism from East Hampton clergy and others who expressed concern that the law might abridge people’s right to practice religion. 

Leonard Ackerman, an attorney and an East Hampton Village resident, wrote a letter to the board, read by his neighbor Andrew Goldstein, that described how the proposed law would have impeded his ability to practice the proper Jewish rite of mourning, following the death of his wife, Judy, last August.   “The number of people who came to pay their respects exceeded 50,” wrote Mr. Ackerman, who noted that many of his guests spent time outside in his garden. “If the new law is adopted I would have been in violation.”

Rabbi Joshua Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons attended the meeting, along with the Very Rev. Denis Brunelle of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Rev. Scot McCachren of the East Hampton Presbyterian Church as representatives of the East Hampton Clericus. All echoed Mr. Ackerman’s concern that the proposed law does not explicitly provide an exemption for events with a religious purpose either at an institution or at a private residence. Mr. Brunelle also wanted to make sure that his church’s annual fair would not be negatively impacted by the law.

Three days after the board meeting, Mr. Kelley, the lawyer for the inn, said that he and the village were working together to try to find a way to allow all of the inn’s 2018 events to take place. When reached to discuss both the board meeting and the potential deal, Becky Molinaro Hansen, the village administrator, declined to comment. 

“We will take all the comments made under advisement,” said Mayor Rickenbach after every member of the public had a chance to speak. The mayor kept the hearing open until the board’s next meeting, on April 5. “It’s not an easy one to grapple with,” he said. 

In other business, the board approved a special event permit for the Chamber of Commerce’s spring fair to be held on May 12, and resolved to hold a public hearing on April 20 in regard to a proposed ban on polystyrene containers. It also extended an agreement with the East Hampton Historical Society to allow the organization to operate its headquarters at 101 Main Street, which is a village-owned building, as a museum through 2023.