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Mar 12, 2019 3:08 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Hampton Rethinks Duryea Settlement After Wave Of Criticism

Lisa Grenci
Mar 12, 2019 4:12 PM

Neighbors of Duryea’s Lobster Deck in Montauk this week railed against the perceived “gifts” to billionaire owner Marc Rowan in a legal settlement brokered by the East Hampton Town Attorney’s office and the representatives for the popular waterside restaurant.

The wave of criticism appears to have spurred the Town Board to rethink its approach and bring in an outside attorney to review the document. One board member, Councilman Jeff Bragman, even hinted on Tuesday that the board may seek to renegotiate the settlement agreement.

At Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s behest, the board on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution to hire an outside law firm, Sokoloff Stern, to review the settlement agreement and offer the Town Board an assessment of the stipulation terms and the legal status of the property.

“I think, at this point, despite what led us to where we are, I think you’re going to see a consensus on the board that this is a situation we don’t want to be in and that we’re going to want to change,” said Mr. Bragman, whose own objections to the settlement earlier this month had drawn an angry retort from Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski, who said he felt as if Mr. Bragman were maligning his office’s work.

Board members acknowledged on Tuesday that Mr. Sendlenski’s office had been hamstrung by the fact that all of its attorneys, other than Mr. Sendlenski, had been unable to work on the settlement with Sunrise Tuthill LLC, Mr. Rowan’s corporate name for the Duryea’s property, because of legal conflicts.

Assistant Town Attorney Jamison McWilliams previously worked for Mr. Rowan’s attorney, Michael G. Walsh. Assistant Town Attorney NancyLynn Thiele had to recuse herself because her husband, Fred W. Thiele Jr., had done legal work for Mr. Rowan regarding the Duryea’s property. Assistant Town Attorney Beth Baldwin recused herself because her husband’s family owns a piece of property near the Duryea’s site. And Senior Assistant Town Attorney John Jilnicki, who did work on the settlement with Mr. Sendlenski, has now recused himself from further involvement because he may have worked for the Duryea family in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, critics have said that some of the stipulations in the settlement seem to dictate a variety of concessions to Mr. Rowan’s business interests at the property.

At the top of the list of criticisms is that the settlement was brokered and signed without any public discussion of what the town was going to agree to allow Mr. Rowan to do at the property immediately and what town regulatory boards would still have the power to dictate.

Among the stipulations themselves, several neighbors have said, is the apparent allowance that a corner of the property that lies in a residential zone, and contains the Duryea family’s former home, can be used in part for additional parking and the installation of a septic treatment system for the whole property—which will require retaining walls some 9 feet in height. Both will have impacts on the residential character of the hillside neighborhood above the restaurant.

“Because of the surprise nature of this, the fait accompli of this, and learning about it after the fact, everyone is outraged,” said Hanna Kirschner, who lives just over the hill from Duryea’s and is one of the residents who has an easement to use Tuthill Road, which is technically privately owned by Mr. Rowan, as an access to their homes. “And since when can you just say that a residential property can be appropriated for commercial purposes? That’s a Pandora’s Box that probably any business owner would like to opt in for.”

Lisa Grenci, another neighbor, said the settlement seems to accept as existing several features at the current Duryea’s Lobster Deck that didn’t exist when the Duryeas operated the business, including a small inside dining area and outdoor dining areas.

Ms. Grenci, who has said publicly that she is a resident of “Dogshit Alley,” as Tuthill Road is known colloquially in Montauk, noted to the Town Board that the Town Building Department has already issued a certificate of occupancy for the property. In doing so, the town essentially declared all of the existing services at the restaurant as legal—even though critics have said that the current arrangements are vastly different from what the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals said was allowed at the property in a 1997 ruling.

The differences at issue mostly have to do with how food is served out of the seafood shop, which is what the “restaurant” is official designated, and where guests can sit. Since Mr. Rowan took over, more service staff have been utilized to care for customers at tables. Though ordering is still done from a take-out style counter, food is now generally delivered to tables by waitstaff, even though the owners have said that is only “by request.”

The settlement required Mr. Rowan to apply to the Town Planning Board for a special exception permit that would allow him to make the restaurant a more typical table-service operation.

“The stipulation … as far as I’m concerned, does not adhere to our town laws, and I don’t know if that is correct, that it can be forced upon us,” Ms. Grenci told the Planning Board last week. “We have one of the few neighborhoods where kids still run around. It’s local, it’s private, a dead-end street. This residential parcel development, retaining walls, parking, all these things that have never existed before, will have a great impact on our neighborhood.”

“He’s basically taking his sewage tanks and moving it into my backyard,” said Robert Pluhowski, another neighbor. If the restaurant is allowed to expand, Mr. Pluhowski calculated that the impacts will continue to spread: “What will happen is he will take the front of my property away to widen the road to make this a wider road for his restaurant.”

Several neighbors asked not to be named because they claimed they feared retribution by Mr. Rowan for speaking out, but they were nonetheless eager to level criticism at the town for agreeing to the settlement, which they see as a green light to Mr. Rowan’s expansion plans.

“What the town did is totally illegal, in my opinion—the neighborhood got screwed,” said one neighbor who identified himself only as “Ralph” when called by a reporter. “We don’t have a problem if he works within his commercial boundaries. He’s zoned for that. But once you get onto the residential property and putting in a wastewater system in a residential neighborhood, retaining walls and that stuff, that will change the character of the neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, at the first discussion of Mr. Rowan’s application to create a full-fledged restaurant in the existing building, members of the town’s Planning Board struggled to interpret what the settlement as it stands now dictates to them about their treatment of the application. Board members said that they were going to be in need of substantial legal interpretation and guidance before they could embark on reviewing a number of aspects of the application—particularly the use of portions of the residential property for septic or parking uses.

“I don’t want to be the one interpreting this decision, but it seems quite clear that the purpose of this stipulation is to permit this board to go forward with this application,” the board’s chairman, Sam Kramer, said. “Where we are now is at the beginning of a long road.”

Ms. Grenci, who used to be the chairwoman of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee, implored the Planning Board to put its statutory jurisdiction over the agreement between attorneys. “Your job is not to follow any stipulation that is blatantly against our code,” she said. “It’s imperative that you do your job and follow the town code, not the stipulation.”

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How much is all this wrangling going to cost the taxpayer to do everything over again?
By Amagansett Voter (62), Amagansett on Mar 13, 19 11:56 AM
Amagansett Voter - do you mean how much is this Democrat (reformed or otherwise) POLITICAL wrangling going to cost the taxpayer? Perhaps the Attorney Councilman and the "Reform Democrats" led by Attorney David Gruber with side comments from the disbarred attorney from NJ could tell us instead of taking the "let them eat cake, but not lobsters!" approach. LOL!
By Board Watcher (534), East Hampton on Mar 14, 19 3:01 PM
This isn't going to end well for the town.
By RtRoth33 (9), Cheshire on Mar 13, 19 1:15 PM