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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

New Canoe Place Inn would enhance Hampton Bays

Folks in Hampton Bays tend to get all Rodney Dangerfield about their hometown.

They're proud of their largely blue-collar community, perched on the doorstep of the fabulous Hamptons. But, they say, it's a matter of respect.

If the Hamptons is the playground of the rich and famous, some of the help lives in Hampton Bays. And, as one resident said, "It's like we're always given the ugly seat in the restaurant, facing the restroom."

But change is in the salt air.

If all goes well and votes fall the right way, two exciting projects are poised to give the community a major face-lift.

The splashiest is a $55 million to $60 million development centered on restoring the crumbling Canoe Place Inn, on the west side of the Shinnecock Canal.

Most people remember it in its final incarnation as a rowdy weekend nightclub. But it had a glorious and colorful history long before it closed in 2010.

Its origins date to the inn built there in the 1600s. Tammany Hall characters and Prohibition rumrunners came out from the city via train to stay there. Lucille Ball, boxer Jack Dempsey and Gov. Al Smith vacationed there.

"Short of George Washington, everyone who needed to sleep somewhere has slept there," Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst says.

Later, the inn was beloved as a site for weddings and proms.

Developers Gregg and Mitchell Rechler bought it in 2005 and proposed razing it and building a time-share-style resort. That didn't fly. But after lengthy negotiations shepherded by Throne-Holst and informed by lots of community comment, a project she rightly says could transform Hampton Bays has emerged.

The Rechlers agreed to restore it to the catering hall-convention center-inn destination locals remember, something lacking in Southampton Town. To make the numbers work, the proposal calls for 37 luxury townhomes on land the cousins bought on the east side of the canal, previously occupied by two restaurants and a bait shop, along with a state-of-the-art Nitrex sewage treatment plant.

The Rechlers also will build a 250-foot dock on the east side with public parking and public access, which did not previously exist, contribute $300,000 toward designing a park on town land next to the Canoe Place Inn, and vastly upgrade the inn's septic system.

There's a lot to like -- preservation of local history, a much-needed increase in taxes for the school district without adding any more students, cleaner water and better treatment of waste, and revitalization of the hamlet, which has business leaders buzzing.

And it blends nicely with plans to create a 36-acre park in the nearby downtown -- a public commons with trails, an outdoor amphitheater, restaurant, etc. Good Ground Park recently received nearly $1 million in state funding for the first phase of construction.

So, what's not to like? Critics cite the usual bugaboos. Like the supposed density of the townhomes -- 37 on 4.5 acres. But those are just numbers. Design dictates density. Some developments have twice the density and look good. This one looks good, too. Others worry about increased traffic on the canal's east side, but it seems likely there will be less.

The project needs a change in zone. The town board votes Tuesday. Saying no would be shortsighted.

Hampton Bays is evolving. The hormonal teens and their party houses and raucous bar scene are mostly gone, replaced by hardworking middle-class homeowners and immigrants.

The community, in short, deserves a break. The Rechlers' proposal would be a shot in the arm. It's not perfect -- what development pitch is? -- but on balance it's really good. And that should be good enough.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.