The East Hampton Town Planning Board had one clear message for the owners of Rita Cantina at its March 1 meeting: Clean up your act before the season begins.
To Eric Schantz, the town’s assistant planning director, that means removing anything from the site plan that had been constructed but not approved by the planning board, including an outdoor patio and seating area, a place for parking catering trailers, grills, fencing, and exterior lighting.
“This is a recommendation of the Planning Department that I believe is well founded,” he said.
The lawyer for Rita Cantina, James Vlahadamis, at first seemed surprised. “We were put on very short notice of this,” he said. “Quite frankly some of this is news to us.”
In November the zoning board of appeals upheld the town building inspector’s determination that Rita Cantina was operating catering businesses out of the restaurant illegally and without approval. The owners immediately appealed the decision, which hangs over the application.
Mr. Vlahadamis argued that “It may be premature to comment when we have an open submission to the Supreme Court with respect to an Article 78 on that matter.” In other words, he argued that should Rita Cantina win its appeal, perhaps the outdoor seating and parking areas could remain.
Mr. Schantz quickly pointed out, however, that the Z.B.A. determination was separate from the Planning Department’s concerns. Moreover, even if Rita Cantina won its appeal, it wouldn’t mean the planning board had to approve structures related to the catering businesses.
“We don’t think that having structures facilitating even one accessory catering use on this property is appropriate,” he said.
“This has been going on for a very long time,” said Ian Calder-Piedmonte, chairing the meeting in the absence of Samuel Kramer. “This is something that should be resolved, so you’re not operating another season with violations.”
The entire board agreed.
“This restaurant was operating before current ownership in a quiet manner,” said Lou Cortese, a board member, who gave a quick history of the problems. “New ownership had a higher profile, people complained, violations were discovered, which led to a site plan review and that opened a whole can of worms, the biggest one being the sanitary system.” He said it was unclear if a system could even be installed at the location due to how close the groundwater is to the surface.
Mr. Vlahadamis suggested that the Suffolk County Department of Health had indicated Rita Cantina may need variances for its system, but he said that “There’s no question an I/A system is feasible at the site.” However, it was not clear where the system would go, which left the planning board unable to evaluate Rita Cantina’s site plan as it stands.
Mr. Schantz said it seemed the only place an I/A system might be feasible would impact the areas the restaurant proposed for two parking spaces and its outdoor seating area, which sits near where the nitrogen treatment units would be buried.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
He suggested removing both parking and outdoor seating from the site plan as proposed structures, even though they have already been built, hinting strongly they would never be approved.
“We’ve seen for a season how that operation functions. It does not function well in this residential neighborhood,” he said.
However, he offered some hope regarding the outdoor seating.
A year ago, the town board approved an administrative method for restaurants to apply for outdoor seating on a yearly basis. The board suggested Rita Cantina go that route, which could allow it to transfer up to 75 percent of its approved indoor seating, or 57 seats, to an outdoor area.
If the temporary approval went through, it would mean the outdoor seating area would not have to go on Rita Cantina’s permanent site plan. That could speed approval for their application.
The board and Mr. Schantz agreed to give Rita Cantina 30 days to act.
“I can’t conclusively say that’s ample time,” said Mr. Vlahadamis. “If we had more notice, we would have submitted the new Health Department accepted septic application.”
“I think it’s problematic if the trigger was, ‘Oh we’re on the agenda again, we better submit,’ “ said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte. “If you have information that’s relevant, you shouldn’t be waiting.”
The board refused to delay. If Rita Cantina cleans up its site plan by April and the board judges it complete, the next step would be to hold a public hearing on the application, which might come just before the start of the summer season.
A note on the Rita Cantina website indicates it plans to reopen in May.
“You owe it to the community, frankly, to fix this before the restaurant reopens. I think that is possible,” said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte. “If you don’t drastically reduce this, you’re going to put yourself in a tough spot.”
“You just have to find a way to be a good neighbor at this point,” said Sharon McCobb, another board member.