East Hampton Town has found itself caught in a bind created by state and country rules and may have to remove its lifeguards from a popular Montauk beach, where a man drowned in 2003, and close it to swimming.
Ever since the drowning, town lifeguards in summer have been stationed at the easternmost beach in downtown Montauk, known commonly as Nick’s, after the restaurant near its entrance. But state laws, enforced by the Suffolk County Health Department, require that a bathing beach have bathrooms.
A town plan to construct public bathrooms near the access path at Nick’s Beach was derailed last year by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It ruled the structure would be too close to the dunes.
The town has had portable toilets at the beach in past years. The trouble now is county health officials are saying the town must show them plans for permanent facilities or close down the beach to swimmers.
“We need to see concrete progress toward building bathrooms or they’re going to have to put up signs that say no swimming,” said Richard Waters, supervisor of marine resources for the county Department of Health Services. “You can’t have temporary facilities on a permanent basis. It’s state laws we’re dealing with.”
Mr. Waters, in a phone interview, said that without the addition of bathrooms, the town would have to stop posting lifeguards there, put up signs that the beach was closed to swimmers, and patrol it to make sure people do not go in the water.
Guests of the Royal Atlantic hotel, directly to the west of Nick’s Beach, still would be allowed to swim in the ocean in front of the hotel by virtue of a state law that allows hotel guests to swim at unprotected beaches at their own risk. The hotel does not provide lifeguards.
Montauk Chamber of Commerce director Laraine Creegan said that Nick’s Beach had become especially popular in recent years because beachgoers could park for free on public streets nearby rather than pay $10 for parking at the Kirk Park lot.
Closing down the beach would hurt business in the hamlet, she said. “This is a resort town,” Ms. Creegan commented. “You can’t have people prohibited from going in the water. It’s a problem the town should rectify.”
The town has proposed adding lifeguards along the stretch of sand between Nick’s Beach and Kirk Park, where there are permanent bathroom facilities, in hopes that the entire area could be considered one beach with the proper facilities. But Mr. Richards said that the law requires bathrooms to be no more than 500 feet from a bathing area. Kirk Park is about a quarter of a mile from Nick’s Beach.
The town is now investigating the possibility of erecting bathrooms in an alley a block north of the beach, Councilman Pete Hammerle said this week, but officials aren’t sure if it can be done. He said the cost of land on which to build the bathrooms would be prohibitive.
“We spent a lot of time and money designing [the proposed bathroom building] and the DEC shot it down,” Mr. Hammerle said of the original plans. “They wanted it moved back but there were problems with the placement of the septic system. It killed the whole thing. Now we’re looking at a some other options but it’s not looking good.”
Supervisor Bill McGintee said that if the town is forced to pull its lifeguards and post the beach as closed to swimming, it would be nearly impossible to enforce the restriction.
“We’re surrounded by water,” he said. “I only have so much personnel and a lot of places to patrol. We’d spend more time keeping people out of the water than we do now to make sure the people we let go in the water are safe.”