The East Hampton Village Board again seems intent on handing over its modest Sea Spray Cottages at Main Beach to a for-profit hospitality management company. This is a bad idea that not only would lead to new demands for expansion there, but would violate a 2008 agreement that would require state approval. The Sea Spray land should be open to the public, if anything.
Why the village board would prefer what amounted to permanent private use of such a lovely and historic location defies understanding. If the cottages are as in need of updates as the village claims, a far-better choice would be to remove them to provide additional recreational and gathering places for resident taxpayers and friends. This raises the question of just who the village board members believe they serve — village residents or out-of-town hospitality operators and real estate developers. It is surprising that the village’s point person for Main Beach, Deputy Mayor Chris Minardi, in particular, would believe this was a good idea.
Some background on the property helps to illustrate how wrong the board is in trying to, in effect, privatize it. After a 1978 fire that destroyed the sprawling Sea Spray Inn there, village residents voted in a landslide to buy the 16 acres of oceanfront for use as a park. Soon, the village board decided instead to lease out 13 units among the cottages as summer rentals, but it turned out that the village could not legally do this on parkland. It took an act of the State Legislature to solve the problem, approving an exemption that allowed the village to get in the landlord business. Today, any request for changes would have to go back to Albany for approval.
In the mid-2000s, rumors were that the village might seek to have the cottages expanded. Neighbors sued, asking a state judge to rule that the site was “held in trust for the residents of the village for beach and park purposes only.” The suit ended in a settlement, in which the village promised not to sell, lease, or otherwise transfer the Sea Spray property without a public hearing, and that any plan to do so would require approval by the State Legislature, as had the original rentals. Then-Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. signed the formal declaration in 2008. If common sense does not spike this idea at the village board level, we hope that concerned residents will again be willing to take up the fight.
Sea Spray Cottages rentals bring in about $1.2 million a year, part of a $25 million village budget for 2022-23. The money — less than a quarter of what it costs to run the police department annually — modestly helps offset revenue that would otherwise have to come from elsewhere. But in a community with sky-high real estate values, it is difficult to take seriously an argument that property taxes could not accommodate the loss if that were taken away. As-is the Sea Spray Cottages are not a big drag on finances; the village has spent between $117,000 and $160,000 on them in each of the last three years.
Before the board tries to decide which private company might take them over in a long-term arrangement, it should be asking if the better choice would be to make the site itself the park that voters approved in the first place. If asked, we believe that village residents would again say that they would rather have more public space than a high-end resort-rental complex that would be locked in place for the foreseeable future. Parks, not profits, we say, especially when this one was already paid for.