In the 1984 movie “Footloose,” rock music and dancing have been banned in a rural American town. Jon Tarbet, the attorney representing the Shagwong Tavern in Montauk, said in a May 2 memo he delivered to the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, that in East Hampton life was beginning to replicate art.
“Where did the ‘Footloose’ thing come from?” Roy Dalene, the zoning board chairman, asked at Tuesday night’s public hearing on Shagwong’s appeal of the building inspector’s determination that dancing only occurred in a small area of the restaurant. “That’s a serious allegation.”
“To me it smells of ‘Footloose,’ “ said Mr. Tarbet. “You’re in downtown Montauk. You’ve been there 100 years. You have a roomful of locals, all we want is do go down there, have a dinner, have a drink and dance, and the town is trying to stop that, 100 percent.”
The Shagwong Tavern has a long and storied history in Montauk, going back a century. It even predates the current downtown, which was created in 1938.
The last year has provided an interesting chapter in that history. The Shagwong got caught up in a town code enforcement sweep of Montauk establishments last Fourth of July weekend for moving tables out of the restaurant to allow more room inside for dancing. This led to a determination by then-building inspector Ann Glennon that the restaurant had illegally added a use, and was operating as a nightclub.
The Shagwong immediately appealed Ms. Glennon’s decision with the Z.B.A. Among speakers at a Dec. 6 public hearing, support for the Shagwong was unanimous. Ample evidence was provided to the board that showed dancing at the tavern had been a common event going back decades. Nevertheless, in February the Z.B.A., in a split 3-to-2 decision, upheld Ms. Glennon’s determination.
But according to Mr. Tarbet, the Z.B.A. never actually filed a written determination, and a week later it voted unanimously to reopen the hearing. The restaurant asked for another determination from Ms. Glennon, specifically asking her, in light of the evidence presented at the hearing, if dancing and music at the Shagwong occurred before 1996, when the modern town code was put in place. In a March 30 response, she said that, in fact, music and dancing were commonplace, but only in a 19-by-17-foot space directly in front of the bar. The dining room, she contended, was not part of the dance scene.
“All records within the town are consistent with the use being a restaurant with a bar, any extension of removing dining tables and ceasing the sit-down food service would be an additional use under the East Hampton Town Code,” she wrote.
However, Mr. Tarbet said the bar space idea was completely arbitrary, and many locals provided affidavits that said music and dancing occurred throughout the restaurant, not just in a 323-square-foot area adjacent to the bar. Others gave impassioned testimony in front of the board Tuesday night.
“I grew up on top of the Shagwong,” said Shawn Hewitt, whose father, Jimmy, owned it from 1969 until 2015, when he sold it to Jon Krasner, Jason Behan, and Beau Campsey. “Saturdays I would go down to collect change off the floor. I shit you not. It was a lot easier on Saturday and Sunday because there were no tables. I’d get two things done at the same time. I’d sweep the floor and keep the change. They’ve always taken out those tables and chairs, since I was 1 year old. It’s always been that way.”
“In ‘69, I moved to Montauk, that’s the year Jimmy Hewitt bought the Shagwong. He didn’t buy it; he inherited the mortgage from Mary Woods. In ‘75 I started hanging out at the Shagwong,” said Dan Stavola. “In ‘79, I built the kitchen. After that, he made me bartender. I tended bar there for three years straight. The tables, they went down in the basement, they went up on the booths that couldn’t be moved. The whole back was wide-open dancing. The place was packed, head to toe, four deep at the bar, five deep. I met my wife there. Just to tell you what it was like, back in the ‘70s. It was pandemonium every weekend. If I have to take a polygraph, I’ll be glad to do it. I was there.”
“Shagwong is my bar that I grew up in,” said Mr. Behan, one of the owners. Answering Mr. Dalene’s question about what had changed in the last year that caused the Shagwong to receive code violations, he said, “What changed? In the last year, the town decided to shut down two of the biggest establishments in Montauk, closed two places that hold over 500 people each.” People needed a place to go, and their options were limited.
“I’m open 365 days a year. I have 20 full-time employees that rely on that restaurant being open, year round. I run my business clean, and I run it fair, and I love my town,” he said, getting choked up. “I look forward to working with the fire marshal going forward.” He said he would be open to adding a sprinkler system in the restaurant, if that would alleviate safety concerns. “I pride myself on safety.”
“I am the one who wrote the first violation,” said Dave Brown, East Hampton Town’s chief fire marshal. “I did not cite Shagwong for dancing. I personally came upon an overcrowded issue in the Shagwong; I counted over 200 people. Comparing it to ‘Footloose,’ that’s offensive.” He spoke with passion about the Station night club disaster in Rhode Island in 2003, in which 100 people died in a fire. “I take this completely seriously.”
He was backed up by Kevin Cooper, the director of ordinance enforcement for East Hampton. “It’s not sometimes they’re moving the chairs, it’s every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. At 10:15 you get the warning that the barstools are coming out from under your rear end and at 10:30 they do. During the day, all year round, the place is like ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name. By midnight, it’s the place where nobody can remember their name.”
“No one is criticizing the fire marshal’s office for trying to enforce safety,” said Mr. Tarbet.
At times, board members seemed unclear on what they were deciding, whether they were giving the Shagwong approval to be a nightclub or to increase its occupancy.
“What went on prior to 1996, prior to 2007, was it similar enough to what’s going on now to say it’s a pre-existing use or has it changed significantly and there’s a new usage on the property now?” asked Ed Johann, a board member.
“If we find you have pre-existing rights to be all these three things” — a restaurant, bar, and nightclub — “without being primarily any of them, what is left for us to decide?” asked Joan McGivern, a board member. Theresa Berger, another board member, suggested the Shagwong could apply for a third use, as a nightclub.
But Mr. Tarbet said that didn’t interest the restaurant. “We don’t fit into the current uses, that’s what a pre-existing business is, by definition,” said Mr. Tarbet. “We want to continue to be what we’ve been for 100 years, which is a restaurant, a bar, that sometimes moves aside tables and chairs for dancing and music. The only question before you should be, ‘Is the building inspector right, that it only occurred in half the bar? Or did the applicant produce enough evidence to prove dancing occurred throughout the bar.’ “
It was a lot for the board to weigh, and there was passion on both sides.
“I’m honored to be in front of the heart of Montauk,” said Mr. Dalene at the close of the hearing. “I’m honored you all are here.” The Z.B.A. has 62 days to make a ruling on the appeal.