- As the 38-year Hamptons landmark Lobster Inn looks to close its doors and convert into a 22-unit condominium development, its owner, George "Skip" Tollefsen has come up against several hurdles in his quest to transform his once profitable seafood restaurant into bay side condominiums.
At the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals meeting Thursday night, Tollefsen and his neighbors were on hand to speak to the benefits the proposed residential development would afford the neighborhood just off County Road 39.
Lobster Inn owner George "Skip" Tollefsen pled his case before the
Southampton Town ZBA as his lawyer, Wayne Bruyn, looked on.
"I'm in a jam," Tollefsen confessed, as he addressed members of the board. "I'm asking for relief for a hardship I did not bring upon myself."
Since the widening of County Road 39 came into effect, prohibiting drivers from turning left out of Inlet Road onto the highway, Tollefsen predicts that his restaurant, which he opened in 1970, went from serving "1,000 dinners a night to 300 to 400."
"When I opened in 1970, that road was just a dream," he offered. Now, that road has slowed his dealings "tremendously," and is literally putting him out of business.
When Tollefsen realized the Lobster Inn could no longer stay open, he proposed a plan to convert the property into 22 condominium units, going back to the days prior to the restaurant when the area was zoned for residential purposes. Tollefsen is seeking clarification regarding a zoning designation on the property for restaurant use, claiming that since the designation has expired as outlined under the Shinnecock Maritime Planned Development District, the underlying R-20 residential zoning is applicable.
In an attempt to quell the ZBA's and Planning Board's concerns that residential development might negatively impact the surrounding area, Tim Rumph, founder and president of Arayis Designs in Southampton, planners for the development, contended that there are three elements to the condominium construction that, once completed, would add significant public benefit.
In laying out the scope of the plan, Rumph indicated the entire site is designed to "be in keeping" with the character of the surrounding 37-lot neighborhood, pointing out that 26 of the lots are less than 20,000 sq. ft. in size. Tollefsen's proposed plan calls for 22 units on nine acres, creating one unit per 18,000 sq. ft., in an effort to replicate the scale of neighboring properties.
Traffic And Water Benefits
As for traffic, Rumph said Tollefsen predicts eight to 10 trucks currently use Inlet Road per day. On days when the restaurant is open, they estimate 900 trips in and out of the parking lot based on the number of dinners they prepare. Under the proposed development, Rumph figures approximately 200 trips, representing a reduction of almost 70 percent.
In addition, Tollefsen contended water usage would also benefit in that the restaurant operated on a well where as in the event of the condominium complex, Suffolk County's Health Department would mandate a hook-up to public water and have to sign off on the site plan, "creating a much better situation" in terms of water usage being so near the adjacent bay.
Speaking in favor of the project, community members took the podium to underscore Tollefsen's regard for the neighborhood.
"Skip lives his life and runs his business with great care," neighbor Cathy Rewinski asserted. "If sold to someone else, they wouldn't take that same care."
"A landmark institution doesn't survive unless someone is doing something right," her husband David Rewinski chimed in. "His proposal is well thought-out and consistent with the neighborhood."
Tollefsen's attorney, Wayne Bruyn, concurred with the planner's assessment, suggesting the Lobster Inn site is "unique due to its location and proximity to the highway," as well as the traffic it generates. In the recommendations put forth by Suffolk County Planning Commission for the proposed development, Bruyn recounted a request to earmark 20 percent of the units be built to affordable housing specifications. According to Bruyn, the project would have to be expanded to accommodate more than the proposed 22 units to accommodate the affordable housing mandate and ensure the project remains profitable.
Tollefsen contends a residential development will benefit his community.
As for the proposed 16-foot noise attenuation wall to be installed parallel to County Road 39 which rankled members of the ZBA when first proposed, Rumph was quick to present scaled down plans for a smaller, kinder wall, six feet in height with a four-foot transparent barrier, indicating a willingness to accommodate ZBA recommendations on the project.
"We're asking for direction," said Bruyn. "We are trying to be responsible." Bruyn went as far as to suggest his client could donate a portion of the lot, namely the area that bears the historic Lobster Inn sign, to the town or county to build a service road in return for adopting the condominium proposal. "The opportunity is there to make safe traffic access, with a situation that makes having a restaurant no longer feasible," he said. "Give land to this project for town or county roads, keep that marina public."
Tollefsen pointed out that if the town or county were to build some type of service road in that area, they could not go south, due to the wetlands, and would need to optimize the front of his property.
Currently, Tollefsen estimates he spends two hours a day offering directions to patrons looking to get home from his restaurant. Neighbors that came to Thursday's meeting agreed that while it may take them two minutes to get to the Lobster Inn, its takes them 20 minutes to get home.
"I would prefer the condos," Cathy Rewinski asserted, "if it can't be the Lobster Inn."