Montauk Demands A Voice In Hamlet Plan

As East Hampton Town readies to adopt a series of hamlet studies, Montauk residents are restless, asking for more time to be included in the discussions.

About 30 Montauk residents showed up for a morning town board work session at the Montauk Firehouse on Jan. 8 expressing dismay that they hadn’t been involved in discussions about a series of broad changes to Montauk outlined in the hamlet studies — from a series of roundabouts, including one at the foot of the hill on which the firehouse stands — to recommendations for zoning changes to encourage oceanfront businesses to retreat from the waterfront downtown in light of rising sea levels.

Town board members said they were heartened by the turnout — despite the fact that the hamlet study was not on the agenda for discussion and the public comment period had already been closed after a Dec. 6, 2018 public hearing, some said it was the largest turnout to discuss the Montauk hamlet study to date.

But board members later said at their Jan. 17 meeting that they’re unlikely to reopen the public comment period but they will consider adding the Jan. 8 testimony to the public record. Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said the board will likely revisit the issue at its Feb. 19 work session.

Comment at the Jan. 8 work session ran the gamut.

Montauk Fire Commissioner Joe Dryer said he didn’t know anyone who knew the name of the hamlet study project, and said he believes a roundabout in front of the firehouse would make it more difficult for firefighters to respond to calls.

Michael Nichols, who said he has a Ph.D. in hydrogeology, grew up in Long Beach, where a series of groins trap sand along the barrier beach. He said he would put up $100,000 of his own money to study whether such a solution could protect Montauk’s oceanfront.

“The effect of greenhouse gasses and industrial age pollutants have been negligible,” he said of climate change. “It’s only useful for certain politicians to forward their agenda.”

“Sea level rise is something that has been going on for roughly 20,000 years here, since the last ice age, and it will continue until the next ice age, when it is reversed,” agreed East Hampton Town Trustee Jim Grimes. 

But Mr. Grimes differed with Mr. Nichols on a Long Beach-style solution for Montauk.

He said that a row of controversial “dirt bags” put along the ocean by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which are exposed and damaged after winter storms “wasn’t unsound engineering on the part of the Army Corps.”

“They said ‘this is a Band Aid. You need significant amounts of sand.’ We’re delivering sand to Montauk by buying it a gallon at a time. We need offshore dredging,” he said.

Dredging of large quantities of offshore sand onto Montauk’s coastline is one solution offered by the Army Corps’ Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation [FIMP] study, underway for more than half a century, but due to be finalized soon, after a series of local public hearings in 2016.

“No one can tell you what’s best for this place better than people who’ve lived here their whole lives,” said Marshall Prado. “We work a lot just to take care of ourselves out here. It is difficult. We have the answers. We need to be involved with the board.”

“We depend on those hotels,” he added. “Those are our bread and butter. We need a dialogue with you and it’s gotta be open.”

“I have no agenda and no love for the hotels on the ocean,” said Henry Uihlein, who owns Uihlein’s Marina on West Lake Drive. “I don’t even know who owns them anymore but I believe they are an asset to the community.”

“If you retreat, where does it end?” he asked. “I found no municipality in the whole country that has retreated, but I found many on Long Island, in New Jersey, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach that have replenished.”

“I smell a rat someplace, and I don’t like it,” he said. “My motive is just I love my town. I’m not here to increase my business or destroy anybody else’s. I was offered a ton of money for my property and I had the privilege of saying no. I want to live here. My parents bought here to have a way of life they really loved.”

Lisa Grenci served as the chair of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Council for 15 years.

“The vision that is being proposed is not my vision of what I see occurring in Montauk,” she told the board, adding that she believes the name of the hamlet study should be “How to Increase Development and Destroy Montauk.”

She pointed out that many areas designated in the hamlet studies as relocation spots for the front row of oceanfront downtown buildings already have buildings on them, including Fort Pond Native Plants and the Montauk Brewery.

She also said she is only in favor of one of the three roundabouts proposed in the plan — one by West Lake Drive and the harbor.

The two other roundabouts, by the firehouse and the train station, she said would be “chaos when the train arrives and the fire department has an emergency call.”

Ms. Grenci suggested the board hold another public hearing in May, June or September, “not two weeks before Christmas, during Yom Kipper or in East Hampton.”

Jessica James said she’s a relative newcomer to Montauk, but she’s been involved with the hamlet studies from the beginning.

“I know plenty of people who think the hamlet study is a great thing,” she told the board. “I’m one of them. I’ve been engaged for the past three years. I don’t know where everyone else was.”

Board members told the crowd that, while numerous recommendations were made in the hamlet study, they will not by default be put into effect when the study is adopted. Many of the major proposals, such as zone changes, would require their own local laws and public hearings before they can be adopted.

“There will be multiple opportunities for the public to engage,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “It’s not a mandate to do anything. That’s part of the communication we tried to have with the public.”

“A good portion of downtown Montauk is at risk, certainly within 30 to 40 years,” added Mr. Van Scoyoc of the threat posed by rising seas. “We need to be making plans and be proactive about how we’re making adjustments. It’s not turning on a light switch and all the motels are moved off the front row. Every time we make a decision, we need to keep in the back of our minds that, yes, this is something we need to be thinking about in our future planning.”

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said the board plans to review public comments with its planning consultant, Lisa Liquori, at its Feb. 5 work session. She said she expects the study to then go through the state-mandated environmental review process known as SEQRA in March.

“This plan is only as good as the communication that we get from the public,” she said. “It is important for your voices to be heard. We will try to address your issues as you bring them up.”

But while many at the Jan. 8 work session said they’d like to see the public comment period held open longer, board members made clear at their Jan. 17 meeting when asked what would happen by Montauk resident Bonnie Brady that they would like to move forward with adopting the study.

“I’m not crazy about holding it open for 60 days, but I don’t see a problem with including the comments from the work session in Montauk,” said Councilman Jeff Bragman.

“The hamlet studies have run their course and we need to move on. The public needs to engage,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc, adding that the Suffolk County Planning Commission is waiting on the town board to adopt the studies in order to process several development proposals in other hamlets.

“One man’s vision can be another man’s nightmare,” said Ms. Brady. “We were all under the impression we could get some extra time.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc told Ms. Brady the matter would be discussed further at the board’s Feb. 19 work session.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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