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Sep 19, 2008 1:12 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Lobster Inn suffering as a result of county roadwork

Sep 19, 2008 1:12 PM

Sunrise Highway didn’t go all the way to Southampton when Skip Tollefsen built the Lobster Inn in 1969, but the changes to the end of that road over the past two years are now putting the squeeze on his business.

Mr. Tollefsen appeared before the Southampton Town Planning Board last week to discuss the possibility of building condominiums to replace the restaurant, and he lamented the ongoing impact of County Road 39 changes that he said have made it impossible for the restaurant to survive.

Famous for its waterfront dining, local seafood and hometown ambiance, the restaurant stands at an intersection that has become known among traffic consultants as “the bottleneck at the Lobster Inn.” That is where the two eastbound lanes had been reduced to one as Sunrise Highway ended and County Road 39 began in the shadow of the restaurant’s large red sign, before an expansion of the highway added a second lane.

The Lobster Inn, a 293-seat restaurant that includes a 48-slip marina, had little to do with the bottleneck. For years, it benefitted from increased business on Friday nights from eastbound tourists stuck in traffic, but otherwise it maintained a clientele of regular customers who returned for the venue’s trademark “splat,” a feast containing every shellfish imaginable, and other maritime delicacies.

It is also the location where the Southampton Town Trustees and a handful of baymen who practice aquaculture on Cold Spring Pond dock their boats.

When plans to improve County Road 39 by adding a second eastbound lane were finalized last year, Suffolk County banned left turns from the restaurant’s parking lot into the newly flowing traffic where the merge had been.

Last year, Mr. Tollefsen printed maps showing his customers how to get back on County Road 39 through a circuitous route that involved doubling back westbound on North Highway to Exit 66 on Sunrise Highway.

He said that many customers gave up trying to get to the restaurant, and his business was down 25 percent last year. This year, business has been even worse—but he said the county’s long-term plan for the road will be the final nail in his coffin.

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who was a driving force behind the road improvement, “came in and said, ‘Skip, we’re gonna close you down,’” Mr. Tollefsen told the Southampton Town Planning Board last Thursday, September 18.

Mr. Schneiderman rejected Mr. Tollefsen’s version of the conversation and said this week that the Lobster Inn is “definitely factored in” to the county’s long-term plan. “The county hasn’t forgotten that there’s a commercial establishment there. We’re trying to resolve those issues,” he said.

Mr. Schneiderman said that he’s aware that Mr. Tollefsen is interested in selling the property and he is waiting for a concept plan from the town for potential future public use of the land.

Though there is currently a moratorium on development on County Road 39, the town exempted the Lobster Inn from that moratorium earlier this year—in exchange for an agreement from Mr. Tollefsen to give his road frontage, and the land his business’s sign is on, to the county.

The county plans to use Mr. Tollefsen’s remaining street frontage to create a service road connecting Inlet Road West, which runs alongside the restaurant, with Inlet Road East, a road that currently connects to County Road 39 just east of the former merge. The new service road created by that connection would not have access to County Road 39.

The change in the roadway, which is outlined in the county’s long-term improvement plan, might make driving safer, but it will certainly make the route more circuitous for residents who live near the inlet, who will need to drive west on North Highway to Exit 66 on Sunrise Highway before turning back on Sunrise Highway heading east.

It’s a five-minute detour for those who know the roads, but Mr. Tollefsen said that it will prove deadly for a business that had historically been dependent on eastbound drivers who do not know the area well.

If he were to keep the restaurant open, he said would need to put a sign at Exit 66 urging drivers to get onto North Highway to get to the restaurant.

Though Mr. Tollefsen has asked the county to put a traffic light in front of the restaurant to allow customers to get out, he said that it has refused, citing safety concerns.

“The county so much wants to get rid of this road,” said Mr. Tollefsen’s attorney, Wayne Bruyn. “We can’t say it’s not appropriate to make these other things safer for our neighbors.”

Over the past two years, Mr. Tollefsen had negotiated with the Town Trustees and Cornell Cooperative Extension to potentially use his property as a nature center or a marine research station, but the town was unwilling to pay Mr. Tollefsen’s asking price.

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By alanna (1), sound beach on Sep 24, 08 4:53 PM
Actually the Sunrise Hwy did go to Southampton since 1963. In 1970 the portion between Hampton Bays and Eastport was completed and opened. However recent roadwork has made it very difficult for eastbound traffic to get to the restaurant. The owner has serious problems because of this.
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on Sep 24, 08 9:01 PM
It is a sad state of affairs when Southampton Town has been taken over by the Hollywood outsiders. Sunrise Highway was widened so they can get back and forth to NYC faster at the expense of town taxpayers who have lived here all their lives. What is wrong with Town government. People, it is time to throw them all out and elect local folks who have your best interest at heart.
By Walt (292), Southampton on Sep 24, 08 9:03 PM
My Mother's family has lived in Southampton well over 100 yrs, much of it in the 2 homes just East of the Lobster Inn. The Inn was the first top quality seafood restaurant and now a Landmark loved by locals and visitors alike. Skip Tollefsen has always been a good neighbor and provides good quality and good value - a rare combination. It is absurd, and a sad commentary on local Government, that a compromise of a slower traffic zone & with traffic turning cannot be agreed for the sake of all.
By JC (1), Cayman Islands on Sep 24, 08 9:30 PM
The body of water is Cold Spring Pond , not Big Fresh Pond , which is further East and a lot smaller.
By PrivateerMatt (390), Southampton on Sep 25, 08 1:51 PM
PrivateerMatt, you're absolutely right...I'll make sure that's changed. Sorry about the confusion.
By Beth Young (7), Southampton on Sep 26, 08 5:11 PM
I travel east on Sunrise/39 into Amagansett at least once a week. The second lane is a blessing except for the 35 mile an hour speed limit. I feel sorry for the Lobster Inn. South Hampton town should do something for this man. But It probably won't unless it benefits them!
By gossamermet (1), shirley on Sep 26, 08 7:46 PM