At Camp Hero: Tents? Yurts? R.V.s?

Can parks police cope with additional crowds?
A page from the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation's request for proposals for a new camping concession at Camp Hero shows potential sites in yellow. New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

State officials may want to turn part of Camp Hero State Park in Montauk into a camping destination, with its sweeping panoramic views from atop the bluffs just west of Montauk Lighthouse, but several groups think that’s just one terrible idea. 

The state is considering allowing camping on 3.3 acres of the park, which offers panoramic views from atop the bluffs just west of Montauk Lighthouse. In August, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation issued a request for proposals “to achieve a new camping concession and expand access and utilization of Camp Hero for outdoor recreation,” which may include “complementary concessions for laundry, outfitting or sundries” for campers’ convenience. Facilities could range from tents and yurts to “glamping,” recreational vehicle sites with utilities hook-up, portable or trailered camping units including “tiny houses,” and traditional cabins or cottages.

The deadline was initially Oct. 4, but it has been extended to Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. According to the department, interested parties had submitted a number of questions.

New York has six state parks in Montauk, but only Hither Hills allows camping, though some say that Montauk Point and Camp Hero are unofficial camping grounds because they allow beach vehicles with fishing permits to stay overnight.

The 415-acre Camp Hero State Park, established in 1974, was used as a military base during World War II. The base’s primary purpose was to provide surveillance and monitor known German U-boat activity. A number of coastal bunkers, still in existence, were built. Later, during the Cold War, Camp Hero was used as an anti-aircraft artillery battery. Its radar tower remains on the bluffs.

At Tuesday’s East Hampton Town Board meeting, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who is the board’s liaison to Montauk, reported that the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee had met the night before and expressed concern. Later she told a reporter, “The concern was with the R.F.P. documents. It would be allowing concessions of food and possibly liquor within the park. I think it counterproductive for the park, and for the citizens of Montauk who feel there’s enough drinking and partying at other locations that they don’t need to also be concerned that they get [state liquor authority] licenses within the park.” 

She said the state put out the request for proposals without consulting the town. “That was part of the surprise. In the R.F.P. it says this park is being underutilized. But as people know, Montauk is being overutilized. And motel owners are saying this is competition they aren’t prepared for. They just increased Hither Hills by a number of camping sites. There were a lot of reasons this does not fit into what we look at for Montauk.”

“I think all of the town board members have contacted friends and the head of Montauk C.A.C., saying they are against moving forward with this type of activity within the park,” Ms. Overby added.

  Laura Tooman, president of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, sent a letter to Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, on Sept. 24, saying that the organization is concerned about the “potential scope and breadth of options outlined,” which could, she said, “pose negative environmental impacts and strain our most valued and treasured resources.” She urged the department to solicit public comment, either in writing or by public hearing, so the larger Montauk community can weigh in on the submissions.

The Eastern Long Island Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which is a grassroots environmental organization that protects the ocean from the Moriches Inlet east to Montauk Point, is also worried about the prospect of a new camping concession. “This is an environmentally sensitive area, with eroding and dangerous bluffs, that would not be well suited for significantly more use than it experiences now,” the foundation said in an Oct. 1 letter to Ms. Harvey.

It laid out five concerns, including the safety of campers near the crumbling bluff lines, especially at night, and the impact to the bluffs themselves, some as high as 80 feet above sea level, from visitors not familiar with the area. Garbage was another issue. 

Sewage management is also a concern. The foundation said that any new bathrooms should have “new, advanced-technology, denitrifying septic systems” installed to mitigate further pollution. “We should not worsen that condition with any new fecal burden generated by this for-profit venture that will bring more visitors to Montauk Point.” 

While a licensee will run the camping, there is also the question of whether the state parks police have enough personnel to patrol another campground. The parks police have for years been complaining about the lack of staffing. 

“We’re way understaffed,” said Manny Vilar, the founding president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State and its current vice president. Mr. Vilar, who lives in Springs, is running next month on the Republican and Conservative lines for a town board seat.

“The Montauk post is supposed to have five [parks] police officers assigned to it to cover 24-7, seven days a week,” he said. “Currently we only have two police officers assigned to Montauk, which does not provide any type of consequential nature. For all intents and purposes we’re not covering it 50 percent of the time.” It is left to other law enforcement agencies, mainly the town police, he said, to pick up the slack.

The Montauk parks police post is responsible for patrolling nine state parks, including the Sag Harbor Golf Course, and the state parkway, which runs from Hither Hills to Montauk Point. 

“As a P.B.A., we’re in support of the state expanding needed services,” Mr. Vilar explained. “We would never want to be the ones who were standing in the way of a local municipality’s economy or services to a state park.” However, he said, “Unless you get the coverage or the staff, we would highly discourage the state from proceeding.”

Bill Akin, a Montauk resident who frequently visits Camp Hero and who reviewed the R.F.P., said that while only 3.3 acres are being looked at for camping, “Nobody has said how many spaces or the target number of people. What are we talking about here in terms of numbers? . . . Even if they start low, what if they increase it? Once you let the camel get his nose in the tent, what’s next?”

The Montauk Fire Department’s emergency services are already stretched thin, Mr. Akin said. “The last thing they need to worry about is running out to Camp Hero in the middle of the night at the extreme end of their service area.” 

“The Parks Department is forgetting that Montauk is overutilized,” he added. “We are full! It’s an already chaotic situation that nobody is able to put their hands around.”


With Reporting By 

Christopher Walsh