A Ronjo Redo, of Sorts

Bowing to pressure, board agrees to alley appraisal

    After weeks of contention over a proposed sale of a piece of town alleyway that bisects the old Ronjo motel property in Montauk, East Hampton Town will get its own appraisal of the value of the land.
    A vote of the town board authorizing the appraisal at a meeting on Tuesday was unanimous, but took some cajoling by Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who offered the resolution and urged everyone to support it, despite some questions about its language.
    The board’s original vote to sell the alleyway at the seemingly random price of $35,000, which Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said he “pulled out of the air,” was split three to two, with the two Democratic members of the board balking at closing the sale without an appraisal and an evaluation of the section’s importance to the town for utilities or other access, for which the system of alleyways was designed.
    Mr. Wilkinson cited previous sales of town property at lesser prices, and without appraisals, which are not specifically required by the state municipal law. The law does, however, place a fiduciary responsibility on public officials to get the best price for land sales and avoid making a gift of public land to private individuals.
    After the board majority refused last month to pass a resolution presented by Councilwoman Sylvia Overby to place the sale on hold until after an appraisal could be made, the East Hampton Democratic Committee, which collected signatures on a petition to force a public referendum on the sale, got its own appraisal, which set the value of the 3,700-square-foot piece of alleyway at $184,000.
    An appraisal commissioned by Chris Jones and Lawrence Siedlick, the principals of the Montauk Beach House, new owner of the Ronjo site, came in at $22,500.
    Signatures on the Democrats’ petition are still being verified by the town clerk’s office. Provided the minimum number stand — likely, considering a margin of some 200 signatures beyond those required — the town board will either have to rescind the sale resolution or hold a special town vote on the matter on a date no less than 60 and no more than 75 days from the filing of the petition — between June 3 and June 18.
    Meanwhile, at the motel, where the grounds have surrounded and, some say, incorporated the area of the alleyway in question for decades, a full renovation continues, with the owners hoping to get the property opened in time for the summer season.
    The project is under scrutiny, and excavation of a basement under one of the motel buildings prompted the town building inspector to issue a stop-work order for that portion of the project, which did not have a permit.
    Because the motel is in Montauk’s central business district, it is a “pre-existing, nonconforming use” and may not expand unless given a use variance by the town zoning board of appeals.
    After a meeting early last week, it was determined that the property owners would seek site plan approval for the basement from the planning board, indicating that the town’s chief building inspector, Tom Preiato, had determined that the addition of the basement does not constitute an expansion.
    Mr. Preiato reportedly suffered a minor medical incident following the meeting on April 9 at the town offices, and was taken to the medical center nearby. He was unavailable for comment, and is reportedly taking a vacation until May 1.
    The site plan application for the basement has been submitted and was on the planning board’s agenda last night.
    Although that application is pending, a building permit was issued last Thursday allowing buildings at the motel to be “rebuilt to previous dimensions” depicted on a certificate of occupancy issued in 1990, as well as the construction of a 1,076-square-foot office lobby and 222-square-foot storage building.
    The permit gives temporary approval to construct the footings and foundation walls for the basement even as the planning board considers whether to approve it. Mr. Jones provided an affidavit attesting to his acceptance of the permit “with the understanding that the completion of this structure without site plan approval shall vest no rights in its continued existence as a ‘basement’ structure.” He agreed to be bound by the provisions of any site plan approval, and accepted any liability related to “the construction of this structure without site plan approval.”
    Richard Hammer, a Montauk attorney representing the Montauk Beach House in its planning board application, said on Tuesday that placing a basement beneath the motel building had been recommended for structural reasons.
    Since the hole has been dug, he said, the only way to proceed is by putting in the footings and foundation walls. “Once you excavate for the foundation . . . you can’t just say ‘put it back,’ ” Mr. Hammer said.
    He said the motel renovation was designed to avoid the need for a site plan review, as the business owners are working under a time limit in order to open for the season. However, he said, seeking site plan approval for the basement is “reasonable in light of all the circumstances. There was a real effort to get this resolved as quickly as possible,” he said.
    The political divisiveness engendered by the sale of the alley, which Democrats have cast as a favor by the openly pro-business supervisor to a friend and supporter, drew the attention of regional media this week, including The New York Post.
    That divisiveness was on display during the short discussion by the board on Tuesday before the vote on Mr. Stanzione’s resolution authorizing an official town appraisal.
    Councilwoman Theresa Quigley complained that the appraisal commissioned by the Democratic Committee had not been submitted to the town, although the one commissioned by the hotel owners had.
    “We should have a professional look at both appraisals and give an opinion as to why they are so disparate,” she said. “The fact that that appraisal is out there — the other one is getting brushed off as if it didn’t exist,” she said. “Unless it’s just a farce.”
    Democratic Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc pointed out that neither appraisal had been ordered by the town. “We might be getting a great deal or we might not,” he said.
    “Why are we getting held against this $184,000 appraisal?” Mr. Wilkinson asked heatedly. “Why is it getting so much attention, Peter?”
    “We don’t have an official appraisal, that’s the whole point,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. Before voting to approve the resolution authorizing a town appraisal, both he and his Democratic counterpart, Ms. Overby, questioned some language in the resolution, including a phrase stating that the objective was “to confirm” that the proposed $35,000 price is “fair and reasonable.”
    “I’m trying to resolve competing interests here,” Mr. Stanzione told them, before eliciting a unanimous vote.