parking wars

The Annual Scramble for the East Hampton Village Beach Pass

People waiting to apply for the village beach parking permit at the East Hampton fire station. Photo: The East Hampton Star

For decades, February 1 has been the day the coveted Village of East Hampton beach parking permits have gone on sale. The five beaches they give access to (not to be confused with the Town of East Hampton beaches, which number more than two dozen) are not exactly walkable, so without a pass, those who don’t live within the tiny village of fewer than 2,000 are effectively shut out — and there goes the summer.

The annual ritual to get this four-month pass has always been a high-stress occasion — there are only 3,100 available, in a town of nearly 30,000 — but for the second year in a row, the first 1,500 are only available to those who apply in person (village residents get unlimited permits for free). It’s a new process that was established last year, designed to open up the beaches to those who own or have long-term rentals in the town but live outside the village, at least until the online sale goes live on February 1. That’s when the price goes up to $750 and everyone is at the mercy of their internet connections and keyboard skills (and it appears that, as of this morning, the site has crashed).

So last week, on a frigid Wednesday in January, people began lining up at 6 in the morning. Soon, the room at the town’s fire station was filled with more than a hundred people waiting on folding chairs. It was a crowd used to buying their way into anything, and in this case, it wasn’t so much the dollar amount ($500) as the price of time: sacrificing an entire day on line.

One New York City mom of two, who has spent the past 20 summers at her house on the outskirts of the village, had driven in from the city the night before. She said she’d missed snagging a pass once, and the season had been a disaster: “Every day, I had to drive the kids to the beach and drop them off with all the stuff. Then, I had to drive home and ride my bike back. It was terrible.” This year, she made sure to show up in person, even though it meant a day of lost income.

“It’s stupid,” said another person on line, who owns a second home in the Hamptons. “I had to drive in from New Jersey and pay all that money in tolls and gas just so I could get my pass.”

There is certainly no shortage of beaches in the Hamptons. But the frenzy to get a pass is less about the convenience of parking and more about a fear of missing out. In the social hierarchy of the Hamptons, the village parking permit is a passport into some of the most exclusive summer circles. Anyone living in the Town of East Hampton (which includes the village) can park for free at the town beaches, with their big parking lots and crowded shores — this includes the residents of other hamlets like Montauk and Springs. But the village beaches are more pristine and intimate, a landscape of gourmet picnics where you might sun alongside Katie Couric or Nathan Lane or Jay-Z. As one village beachgoer said, “There are people I see on the beach I see nowhere else in my life.” It’s a fraught privilege, since some village residents would prefer that outsiders not get access at all.

“Yes, I have a beach at the end of my street,” said a young woman with a house in Amagansett. “But what if I want to go to a different beach sometime?” She admitted she only uses the village beach parking permit once or twice a season. Another woman on line was relieved when she finally got hers. “Oh thank God,” she said. “Even though I’m never going to use it.”

The new in-person process was intended to be an improvement on previous years. For decades, the application process depended mostly on luck; you sent in a check and a self-addressed envelope on February 1 and held your breath until a sticker arrived in your mailbox. In 2021, the village finally took the application system online. But when the portal opened at midnight on February 1 and everyone who had set their alarms for 11:55 p.m. logged on, many spent the evening messaging one another in the middle of the night to troubleshoot the online application. All 3,100 permits were gone by 11 a.m. the next day.

“We had a lot of complaints that year,” said Mayor Jerry Larsen.

In 2022, the village shifted the start time to 9 a.m., but that was worse — all the permits sold out in four hours. Older residents and those who were less tech-savvy didn’t stand a chance. Last year, Mayor Larsen began the locals-only, in-person option, hoping that it would be more equitable (or as equitable as a $500 parking permit can be).

The line for beach permits in 2023. Photo: Stephanie Krikorian

The “locals,” of course, came from Manhattan; Greenwich, Connecticut; and Closter, New Jersey, in their Range Rovers, Porsches, and Mercedes. By 9 a.m., traffic in the village had come to an unprecedented standstill, and the people on line were hungry, thirsty, and completely frustrated.

This year, everyone braced for more of the same. When the village made a Facebook announcement for the January in-person sale, I and every fellow Hamptonite I knew immediately blocked off our calendars and canceled everything that day to head east.

The night before the sale, I overheard the cashier at the local grocery store tell a colleague that parking in their lot was going to be impossible the next day because “those people coming out for their $500 beach pass” parked in it last year.

“A shitshow, right?” I said supportively, even though I was too aware that I was one of those people.

I went prepared to wait, ready to stave off the hunger of last year with coffee and a bagel. But this year, the village had set up a “golden ticket” system, giving each applicant a time to return by. Officials had assumed it would take an hour to process every 200 applications, but it took just ten minutes. I got my time slot at 7:50 a.m., went home to drink my coffee (still hot!), and returned at 10 a.m. as directed. I was in and out in five minutes. All 1,500 permits sold out by 5:15 p.m.

Carrie Doyle, a village trustee who worked the permit counter that day, said that most people had been pleasant but she was amused at the number of folks who tried to beat the system, specifically its one-ticket-per-person rule: “I had about 30 different people who said they couldn’t wait for their ticket time or needed a second pass without a second human to get it. ‘My husband is sick.’ ‘My dog is sick.’ ‘My kid has pink eye.’ ‘I flew in for this, I’m flying out.’ ‘I have a Jitney to catch.’ ‘I’m a lawyer, I have court.’ ‘I’m a rabbi, I have a service.’ ‘My husband’s in the car, can’t I get two?’ A cop from NYC flashed his badge at me.”

Even a well-known billionaire played by the rules, or rather his staff did. He’d sent someone to secure passes for each of his six cars, including his Maserati. I watched as the hoodie-clad young man bought one pass and then got back on line to get another timed ticket. All in a day’s work.

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The Annual Scramble for the East Hampton Village Beach Pass