East Hampton Board to Revisit Music Permit Changes After Public Outcry

Singer-songwriter Nancy Atlas speaking before the East Hampton Town Board on Thursday, March 21. Michael Heller photos

Thursday night found Montauk singer-songwriter Nancy Atlas headlining a group of local musicians in East Hampton that included Inda Eaton, Kylph Black, Josh Brussell, Lynn Blue and Ms. Atlas’s husband, Tom Muse. It was not the Stephen Talkhouse stage in Amagansett where more than 150 musicians, business owners and community members gathered, though. It was down the road at East Hampton Town Hall where several hours of impassioned pleas called on the Town Board to reconsider proposed changes to its music and entertainment permit — changes residents said would harm local music and businesses alike.

And the chorus was heard.

“I think we have had a really good opportunity to recognize the importance of music in our lives, in our town, and we will certainly consider all of this,” said Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who happens to be a musician and whose wife, Marilyn, was a music educator, near the end of the marathon public hearing. “Just so people know, we had no intention on voting on this tonight and will certainly take this up at a work session. I think it is clear that future engagement on how we can do what we need to do to address the concerns we have without harming those who may be affected in a collateral way is very important for us to do and take that time. We are going to do that. I just want to reassure everyone.”

The gathering was largely prompted by a call to arms by Ms. Atlas, who posted a video on Facebook on March 15 urging residents to attend the March 21 town board meeting, where a public hearing had been scheduled on changes to the code that governs the issuance of music and entertainment permits in the town.

The proposed changes would require that bars, restaurants and taverns apply for a music and entertainment permit on an annual basis if they hope to host live music outside of special events, which requires its own permit. It would also give the town clerk discretion to deny or revoke a music permit if a business has been convicted twice of violating a number of town codes within a three-year period. Town attorney Michael Sendlenski said during a work session on March 19 that permits currently can be revoked by the town board if a business is issued three summonses within a one-year period.

The proposed amendment would also remove an appeal process from falling under the jurisdiction of the town board, placing the authority of that review in the hands of a three-member committee made up of the town police chief and representatives from code enforcement and the fire marshal’s office. Other amended changes would require seating plans be filed with the town clerk to ensure a restaurant was not removing its seating to become a de-facto nightclub.

Musicians and business owners expressed concerns Thursday night that the new law would be used to address town code issues that have nothing, in fact, to do with live music. They also expressed worries that two convictions in a three-year period would put too many businesses at risk of losing an important facet of their business — live music — including businesses who have already pled guilty to a violation of one of a host of town codes as a part of a settlement agreement with the town.

“I would like to suggest, right off the bat, that any new music laws or amendments be based solely on convictions of violations through music, through the making of music,” said Ms. Atlas, “because right now, in this proposed new law, you can get a violation through parking, over-crowding, zoning and town code law and it is so vague it could be for having a new awning or a shed.”

A standing-room-only crowd filled the meeting hall during the hearing last Thursday.

Attorney Deborah Choron, an associate with Matthews, Kirst & Cooley, agreed, noting the construction of either could land someone with four different code violation charges — charges that would become convictions if the business owner made a plea deal with the town. Ms. Choron said the result would be fewer business owners willing to come into greater compliance with town code when facing a number of violations through a settlement process.

Attorney Dianne Leverrier said she believed the creation of a committee to lead the revocation hearing is not lawful under state town law, which lays out a process for a town clerk to grant permits and a revocation process. Ms. Leverrier said her research showed that authority should remain with the town board, not a special committee, but suggested code enforcement, the police department and the fire marshal’s office could be referred to for comments that the town clerk would use in her process to determine whether to deny a permit. If it is denied, however, it is an issue that should come before the town board as a matter of due process.

Ms. Leverrier also questioned language regarding employees being convicted of town code violations, which could put business owners in danger of revocation.

“My thoughts are I get this amendment is to fix things and make them better,” said Ms. Eaton. “There is not one of us in this room that has not driven back from a venue, or a restaurant or an establishment and thought, ‘Wow, it must be tough to be their neighbor.’ I get that, I really do. So, I see where this comes from. I am just not in favor of how the amendment is written. It has unintended consequences.”

David Gruber, an attorney running for town supervisor and frequent critic of the current Town Board, called the process “demeaning” to town residents, suggesting the board should have encouraged public discussion prior to a public hearing. “This is the last chance the public has to prevent you from doing something that is out of control,” he said.

Both Laraine Creegan, the executive director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, and Paul Monte, chair of the East Hampton Town Business Advisory, urged the town to rethink the amendments, with Mr. Monte suggesting the advisory committee could meet with local business owners and musicians and come back to the board by the end of June with recommendations.

“There is a very real concern it is far too late in the year to expect businesses and musicians to adapt to radical changes in programming,” said Mr. Monte.

“We have an arts council for fine arts,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said in response. “Why not have a committee formed with musicians that can inform the town board how we can help you, your livelihoods, how we can make adjustments to codes to promote live music and do so in a respectful manner to the whole community but give more opportunities for small businesses that are music related?”