Maria Hults has seen some of the best beaches in the world. During decades spent as an expert scuba diver and photojournalist, she’s visited postcard-perfect shorelines in Bali, Australia, Malaysia, and all over the Carribbean. But her favorite beach, she says, is in Hampton Bays, the town she’s called home since 1971.
When the Town of Southampton’s Parks and Recreation Department announced plans to renovate the pavilion at Ponquogue Beach, Hults was a big part of that process, and that was by design. Ponquogue, sitting on Dune Road, is one of the most highly attended of the nine ocean beaches run by the Town of Southampton. It is also one of the most recognizable, bursting into view for drivers, runners and walkers at the crest of the high-arching Ponquogue Bridge. On sunny days, the view from the top of the bridge is exceptional. The ocean glimmers in front of the sprawling pavilion that has been there since the 1960s. Breaking waves are dotted with surfers. To the east and west, boats pass under the bridge, and herons and egrets pick their way through the bay grass alongside clammers in waders plucking treasures from the shallower waters.
The unique, picturesque setting of Ponquogue Beach is a big part of the reason why officials in the parks department and on the town board were keen to make the community happy with a renovation project that was years is the making. So they made sure they sought deep community input and involvement in the project. Hults was a key player in that goal, in her role as president of the Hampton Bays Civic Association.
The result of the collaborative effort between the town and the community is, according to everyone involved, a resounding success. The town held a ribbon-cutting for the pavilion in May, and Southampton Town Parks Director Kristen Doulos said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Early ideas for the renovation included what would have been a wholesale change from the original look of the pavilion, built in 1966. Officials tossed around the idea of a multi-level restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating, and completely changing the overall design. But once they started seeking input from the community — through public meetings and an online survey that generated more than 1,300 responses — it became clear that people didn’t want that.
“Keeping it simple was a concept that kept coming up,” Doulos said. “People liked the traditional look and feel, and just wanted it refreshed.” She added that people wanted Ponquogue to maintain a “low key, family beach kind of feel,” and did not want to see alcohol served there.
After months of community input, sharing plans and renderings at several town board work sessions, and tweaking the plans based on those meetings and the input gathered through various means, the pavilion is now complete, and includes many features designed to make people happy and make it sustainable for years to come.
Features like additional skylights to improve natural lighting, fixes to help harvest rainwater for irrigation and restrooms, the use of EPI decking and chemical-free siding are all new, as well as the addition of more outdoor showers and changing tables in restrooms. Upgrades in the parking lot include rainwater gardens and native plants. The attendant’s booth was also updated, and there were improvements made to the handicap access points as well. The total renovation cost $3.35 million.
The project was part of an overall effort to make improvements to several facilities, particularly in Hampton Bays. The access decking at Hot Dog Beach, to the west of Ponquogue on Dune Road, was also recently updated, as were fishing piers and docks and other facilities in the town along Dune Road. Doulos said it has been nice to see, as those projects had to wait on the backburner during times when the town’s budget was tighter, and Superstorm Sandy had wreaked havoc at ocean beaches.
Like Hults, Doulos has lived in the area for many years, growing up in Hampton Bays, which, she says, “makes every project personal.” It’s why she’s so happy about the results at Ponquogue and other facilities.
“I’m going to use it, and my friends are going to use it, and if they don’t like it, I’m going to hear about it,” she said. “It was a really interesting process, and we took the time to really get it right by going through this long conceptual process and public feedback process. I’m really happy with the results, and I’d say 99.5 percent of the feedback has been extremely positive.”
Hults praised town officials for listening to the community and working hard to give people what they wanted, and listed several improvements she is particularly happy about.
“It’s lovely that they put more tables out,” she said. “You can sit in the afternoons and watch the sunset, and see both the ocean and the bay. The ladies room is amazingly clean and modern. It’s a clean facility with a place to shower, and it’s a place you can bring your kids. And it’s safe. It’s everything you could want from a facility.”
Hults will certainly spend a lot of time at Ponquogue, and she encourages other to do the same. She said Ponquogue has something that some of the world’s best beaches, from other towns on the East End of Long Island to exotic locales like the Maldives don’t have — a sustained connection to unspoiled nature. She spoke about annual lists of the best beaches in the country, and said she is puzzled why other beaches on the East End — many surrounded by mansions sitting just behind the dunes — make the list, while Ponquogue does not.
“I think Hampton Bays is the best of all the Hamptons,” Hults said. “At Ponquogue, there are no houses. You can sit on the deck of the pavilion and overlook the bird sanctuary, see osprey nests and snowy owls. It’s a bit of heaven on earth here.”