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May 28, 2019 2:38 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Rowan Says Lobster Deck Is Labor Of Love As ZBA Considers 'Lawless' Conditions

Neighbors say the dining deck at Duryea's has grown, but the owner says otherwise.      KYRIL BROMLEY
Jul 18, 2019 10:27 AM

As teams of lawyers exchange legal volleys about the past, present and future of Montauk’s latest most-controversial business, Duryea’s Lobster Deck, the billionaire investor who owns the property says that much of his ambition at the property and his motivation for making the changes to Duryea’s that he’s pitched in various forms are not what most assume they are.

He said the improvements he proposed making are just that—improvements, meant to make the property itself nicer to look at and easier on the environment. They were not meant to create, or perpetuate, a nightmare for neighbors of the popular waterfront eatery, he said.

“This is a labor of love,” said Marc Rowan, who bought the Duryea’s property in 2014 and has been battling East Hampton Town ever since for approval to expand and renovate restaurant space. “This is not my business. I am not in the restaurant business. If Duryea’s makes a dollar more or a dollar less, that doesn’t matter to me. I’m doing this because I want to do it—because I love that place.”

Of course, Mr. Rowan is, technically, in the restaurant business, since he owns two restaurants in Montauk—along with two hotels—and one in Sag Harbor. He also, however, is a co-founder and the senior managing director of Apollo Global Management, a private equity investment firm with about $250 billion in managed assets.

When he bought Duryea’s back in 2014 and quickly came up with ambitious plans for an extensive overhaul of the former wholesale seafood business and hyper-casual outdoor dining area, many ventured a guess at a strategy in Mr. Rowan’s spreadsheets: expand the take-out food counter business into a real restaurant and catering hall—a big one—so that it either made a bunch of money or became a flippable asset much more valuable than the $6.3 million he paid for it.

There was also the talk of a cruise ship terminal—his company, at the time, owned a significant portion of Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Duryea’s has a large pier attached to it—and a ferry service.

But that has not been the driving force behind his plans thus far, Mr. Rowan said in a recent interview. He said that his much-maligned original plans for the property—calling for most of existing structures to be demolished and rebuilt—expanded the restaurant space, though not by as much as is typically referenced. Otherwise, he said, they actually would have shrunk the overall size of the development from 16,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet.

The plans also shifted the buildings away from the water somewhat, in response to environmental concerns raised by advocates he met with after he took over.

While those plans have been shelved, Mr. Rowan said the mission is the same.

“We’ve fixed it up,” he said. “We’ve repaired what needs to be repaired—the only thing left to do really is replace the septic, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Misinformation or lack of understanding, and the longstanding distrust from years of battling the Duryeas, are the main reasons for the push-back from neighbors, Mr. Rowan surmised. The property has not changed substantively from the last days of the Duryea family running it, he said, other than aesthetically.

“It runs much better now, but otherwise it’s the same,” he said. “The critics keep saying 52 seats was what the [Zoning Board of Appeals] said. It was never 52 seats. There have been 90 seats forever. We serve the same stuff they served—we just do it nicer. They were BYOB, which is illegal in New York. We got rid of plastic, we put our garbage inside, and we don’t play music, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Mr. Rowan has said he is willing to accommodate the neighbors’ other concerns at nearly every turn.

A main objection by neighbors has been that the installation of a new nitrogen-reducing septic system would be on a portion of the lot that lies within a residential zone. Mr. Rowan and his representatives have said that there is no other location in which such a system could be placed, because of topography of the property. They’ve also tried to demonstrate that once septic system is installed and the property restored, the physical appearance of the terrain will be nearly indistinguishable from what it is now.

Neighbors have not been convinced.

Whether it’s a labor of love, or love of a good return on investment, Mr. Rowan’s efforts to make changes at the property have once again sparked the ire of neighbors who had clashed with the Duryea family over the property for many years.

When details emerged about the settlement of three lawsuits brought by Mr. Rowan’s corporation ownership, neighbors said that the agreement “gave away” uses at the property that are illegal now or are being added without the appropriate applications to the town.

Last week, an attorney for a group of neighbors, who formed a group called the Tuthill Road Association in the 1990s to unite against former owner Chip Duryea’s plans to legalize the restaurant, said that the sort of expansions and changes at the business without accompanying permits that the Duryeas gradually slipped through, under the radar, are continuing under Mr. Rowan’s oversight.

The group has hired an attorney to represent it in the renewed fight over the “restaurant” since the town asked a state judge to nullify a settlement of Mr. Rowan’s lawsuits. Last week, the attorney, Jonathan Wallace, clashed with Mr. Rowan’s representatives for the first time at a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals over a request by Chief Building Inspector Ann Glennon to revoke a certificate of occupancy issued in accordance with the settlement terms.

Mr. Wallace called the Duryea’s property “lawless” and said Mr. Rowan’s representatives are continuing a long history at the property of doing things without following the proper steps to get permission.

“In all these years of activity and constant expansion, we’ve never seen a site plan, we’ve never seen any application for a natural resources special permit, even though the site fronts on two pieces of water … and we’ve never seen any kind of [State Environmental Quality Review Act] review,” Mr. Wallace said. “We are not trying to prevent the pre-existing use. We are asking for a neighbor to behave lawfully and to apply for permits as the law requires it to do.”

Some argued that the approach of using lawsuits, and behind-the-scenes settlement talks to try to force through legalization of the existing conditions at the restaurant and put new changes—like the septic system—on the fast track to approval, flies in the face of the rules everyone else has to follow.

“This whole fight makes a mockery of anyone who has ever complied with the building code or town ordinances,” said George Watson, who owns The Dock restaurant.

Mr. Rowan’s attorneys echoed their client’s sentiments that the existing dining arrangements have changed aesthetically but not substantively since the days of plastic tables and chairs and paper plates. They also noted that the judge considering whether to annul the settlement stipulations also has said that the certificate of occupancy issued to the property this spring cannot be rescinded until he has ruled on the broader considerations. The ZBA said it would continue to consider the request to rescind the certificate of occupancy by Ms. Glennon.

In the meantime, the owner says, those neighbors who have been so critical of his proposals are, perhaps, missing the boat.

“They are wasting their time and they are wasting their money,” he said. “And for what? So I don’t put in a new septic—and just go back to what we’ve been doing, with no new septic?

“They haven’t stopped to think,” he added, “that maybe they have an owner who is not there just for the financial opportunity. Maybe they have an owner who is just doing it because he loves this place.”

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