It’s a Thursday morning on Canoe Place Road and, like every Thursday morning this summer, Irene Tully documents the early arrival of an Emil Norsic & Son septic truck to drain sewage from the cesspool of the Rumba Rum Bar restaurant that sits a hundred yards from her home.
Some weeks, she photographs the trucks from her back porch, which overlooks the restaurant’s small parking lot. Other times, she simply marks the appearance on her calendar.
Throughout the week, Ms. Tully makes note of delivery trucks that stop in front of the small restaurant—obstructing traffic as they unload their goods—along with every violation she hawkishly observes at the popular venue.
“If I didn’t write these letters … if we weren’t active here, there would be parking all over this road, there would be live music over there, [trucks would] be coming in [at all hours],” she said.
Ms. Tully is one of the more active members of a small but vocal group of homeowners in Hampton Bays disgruntled both by the restaurant’s business practices—which include hosting live music, breaching their occupancy limit, shuttling patrons in by bus and boat to circumvent limited on-site parking, frequently pumping the septic system, and allowing delivery trucks to park on the tight stretch of Canoe Place Road—and the Southampton Town Board’s inability, or unwillingness, to correct the situation more than a year after threatening litigation against the restaurant.
“I’m just surprised that somebody hasn’t gotten really badly hurt from it, because it’s being used as a major thoroughfare, and it wasn’t meant for that,” said Merry Grube, the sister of Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr., who lives and operates her landscaping business in the same neighborhood as Rumba.
Ms. Grube, Ms. Tully and other neighbors, including Kathy Warner, Mr. Warner’s wife, have called town code enforcement, written complaints, and spoken out publicly against Rumba, but their efforts appear to be in vain. No violations have been issued against the waterfront restaurant this spring or summer, even though Ms. Tully and others said they have filed multiple complaints with Town Hall.
And recent discussions about the restaurant have created more divides among Town Board members than plausible solutions.
Councilwoman Bridget Fleming has been the most vocal as of late, calling for stricter enforcement, as well as a public hearing to discuss the matter, which she was granted but which yielded few results.
“The board is made up of five members, and as one member of the board I have tried a number of avenues to try to get action on Rumba,” Ms. Fleming said. “There is not majority support for those approaches.”
The July 25 hearing resulted in a few suggestions from Town Police Chief Robert Pearce and Town Transportation Coordinator Tom Neely. Officials recommended that video cameras be installed on the street to monitor parking and signs put up to regulate it, but there has been no follow-up by the board, Mr. Neely or Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, whose office sent the letter outlining the requests, to see if the restaurant has complied.
Rumba’s owner, David Hersh, has not returned calls in recent weeks inquiring if any of the requested steps have been taken, or if plans are advancing to install a new septic system that, in the very least, would reduce the need to have the cesspool pumped on a weekly basis.
In an email sent on Tuesday, Ms. Throne-Holst said Mr. Hersh has been taking steps to come into compliance with the town code, and that is why she has been patient.
“I am certainly anxious to see Rumba achieve compliance with town code, but I also believe the business owner is entitled to due process,” she wrote in an email. “When we first met with David [Hersh] and his attorney, they outlined the steps they planned to pursue in order to cure the issues the restaurant was being cited for—and they have made steady progress toward meeting those objectives.”
Ms. Throne-Holst has come under fire by some, including Ms. Tully and Ms. Grube, for her connections with Mr. Hersh, who contributed $1,000 to her reelection campaign in 2011 in addition to be being featured in her campaign advertisement the same year.
Although the town has levied various citations against the restaurant in years past, the property owner, Robert Arcate, cannot be prosecuted until the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals rules on an application submitted by the restaurant that seeks to excuse it from the parking requirements, Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said.
The restaurant is asking the zoning board to waive the town’s parking restrictions and the restaurant’s occupancy limit, the latter of which now permits up to 100 customers, according to Adam Grossman, the vice chairman of the ZBA. The board has granted multiple adjournments to Mr. Hersh as he seeks a permit from the Suffolk County Health Department to increase the number of seats at Rumba from 21 to 64—an accommodation that Mr. Grossman said the restaurant might never receive.
“The underlying issue with this restaurant is that they have more customers than the [code of occupancy] allows for, and current health board code allows for,” Mr. Grossman said. “I cannot recall, in all my years, this type of relief being requested by another applicant.”
Mr. Arcate’s legal counsel has requested and received multiple adjournments from the ZBA, a practice that can continue as long as zoning board members continue to grant them, Ms. Scarlato said, leaving the business safely secured in a legal loophole. Mr. Grossman said the board would most likely continue granting the adjournments to Mr. Arcate, who is due in front of the board again on Thursday, September 19, until the county health department decides on the seating request—something that will not likely happen until Rumba’s cesspool system is upgraded.
“There isn’t anything we can do,” Ms. Scarlato said. “It’s the strange part and the unfortunate part of how ZBAs work. We really don’t have anything to hurry things along.”
Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi said he is in line with Ms. Fleming on the issue, and echoed that it would be near impossible to get the Town Board to take any kind of action against the restaurant. He, like others, says Ms. Throne-Holst is the main roadblock, defending the restaurant, and its owner, Mr. Hersh, at every turn.
“You have a supervisor who seems completely, just absolutely opposed to doing anything over there in terms of restrictions,” Mr. Nuzzi said.
When asked about whether taking legal action against Rumba is still an option, Mr. Nuzzi said: “It’s clear that there would not be a majority support for any kind of action like that.” He declined to speculate how such a vote would fall.
Multiple sources familiar with the situation strongly suggested that Ms. Throne-Holst has directed others—namely, the town attorney’s office—away from pursuing any legal action against the restaurant in recent months. The supervisor has not returned calls or emails after responding to repeated requests for an interview with the exception of an email sent on Tuesday.
Councilman Jim Malone spoke harshly this week about the need to enforce the town code and ensure that Mr. Hersh and Mr. Arcate are actually working to get in compliance. “If there hasn’t been a diligent effort to get things squared away, and I mean diligent, then I’ve got no tolerance for it,” he said.
Mr. Malone was vocal last summer about the town pursuing legal action against Rumba, going as far as to state that it should temporarily shut the restaurant until it was in compliance with the code. But that effort went nowhere, even after the board granted the town attorney’s office full authority last summer to take any legal action necessary against the restaurant.
Ms. Scarlato said the town attorneys have not taken any action against Rumba since it filed its application with the zoning board last August. She declined to explain why that is the case.
Town Councilwoman Christine Scalera has abstained from many discussions about Rumba, citing a conflict of interest. She explained on Wednesday that she provided legal counsel to Mr. Hersh regarding an unspecified legal matter prior to her election to the Town Board.
The inaction of the Town Board has done nothing to ease the concerns of neighbors.
“Anna Throne-Holst told us, ‘Oh, it’s OK, he’s a good guy. He’s bringing business to Hampton Bays,’” Ms. Grube said. “That doesn’t answer the question, and that does not help the situation. That just condones the fact that he’s breaking the rules.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said her reasoning for not pursuing further action against the restaurant is that Mr. Hersh, in her opinion, has made strides toward getting into compliance, such as seeking Suffolk County Health Department approval to increase seating, and obtaining a credit from the town allowing 20 on-site boating slips to count as 10 additional employee parking spots.
“In my opinion, shutting down a successful establishment while it is making clear and meaningful progress toward achieving code compliance is excessive,” she wrote in her email. “Further, town law provides for a stay to maintain the status quo during the appeal process, which is ongoing.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said she is optimistic that with the summer drawing to a close, Mr. Hersh will have a chance to update the septic system to facilitate the number of patrons that visit his restaurant, which has been known to total more than 200 during a lunch or dinner rush. However, a similar sentiment was expressed last year with no results.
Despite the limited progress made since she took on the cause when the restaurant opened in 2010, Ms. Tully said she has not given up hope. During her 35-year career as an elementary school teacher, Ms. Tully said she emphasized activism to her students, so she feels an obligation to practice what she preached.
Her days as a teacher also instilled a desire to enforce rules, which she said is—beyond the smell of septic in the morning, the beeping trucks during the day, and the playing of music at night—her main motivation for taking a stand.
“As a classroom teacher for 35 years, that’s what I did in the halls—the kids didn’t even have to be in my class,” she said. “It’s accountability. Otherwise, why do you have rules?”