Uber, the app-based ride-booking service, will suspend operations in the Town of East Hampton after undercover officers charged its drivers with violating local licensing ordinances.
More than 20 drivers, all of whom said they were Uber partners, were charged with misdemeanors over the past two weekends when they failed to produce valid business licenses when asked by officers who had taken rides with them within the town, officials said.
Travel to the town is no joy ride in the summer, with Montauk Highway a virtual parking lot on weekends. East Hampton's airport is packed with private jets and helicopters throughout the summer and the town's attempt to control helicopter travel has been tied up in the courts. The Uber suspension could add to travel woes.
The town crafted new licensing rules after more than 700 cabs from across the region flooded the town to compete for lucrative summer business last year, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said. "Downtown Montauk, in some cases, on Saturday night, was overrun with cabs, congesting the streets, taking up parking spaces," he said. "It's been a mess."
Taxis must be registered under the name of a company that holds a business license, and taxi companies must maintain an office within the town. Cantwell said those rules are intended to impose order on what has become a raucous summer scene, not to single out any driver or company.
But a spokesman for Uber, which has operated in East Hampton for three years, said the rules amounted to a ban on its business. While a conventional cab company might register a single office, the rules require that each Uber "driver-partner" is required to register an office, the spokesman said. Hundreds of Uber drivers might operate in the town on a busy summer weekend, he said, and there simply isn't enough rentable office space for all of them.
"There is an unquestionable need and demand for Uber in the Hamptons because taxi service has been historically unreliable," the spokesman, Matt Wing, said in an email. "For the last several summers, Uber obtained local licenses from the town of East Hampton so residents could get reliable and affordable rides with the push of a button. Unfortunately the East Hampton town supervisor and town board have changed the rules, banning Uber from the town and denying their constituents access to our service."
Some local cab company owners hailed the suspension of Uber service. The company "was causing chaos in this town," said Paul Acevedo, owner of Montauk's Best Taxi. "We pay an owner's license, we pay a license per vehicle, and they weren't paying either."
Uber emailed its riders Friday asking them to "contact Town Supervisor Cantwell today -- tell him you need Uber in East Hampton." The company will continue to operate elsewhere on Long Island, Wing said.
Uber still has options if it wants to do business in East Hampton, Assistant Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski said, for instance by "teaming up with one of the 220 licensed cabs in town now to provide services through their app."
He warned, though: "If you violate our regulations, we will charge people. We will prosecute them for violating our regulations."