Volleyball Menace: How East Hampton Town Fought Against This Scourge

The first time I heard about the problem was last year. I was sitting at the bar at CittaNuova in East Hampton and someone said that the dreaded backyard volleyball games had come to the Hamptons.

“This is not the sort of thing anyone ever would have thought could come to this town,” one man said.

“How bad is it?” someone else asked.

“The authorities are trying to nip it in the bud. But so far, they’ve gotten nowhere.”

Someone asked, what was wrong with backyard volleyball? The first man replied it was like taking a TV out to your backyard, inviting over 20 or so of your friends, having a barbecue, drinking, cheering and carrying on while watching the Super Bowl, but like every weekend from April to October.

Everyone fell silent for a while. A few eyebrows were raised.

“It started in Ecuador,” the man continued. “I know this. I have a friend who lives there. It became the most popular sport in Ecuador. Nobody could stop it. Soon it spread to the rest of Latin America. Now it’s come north.”

No action was taken last winter, but when the games started up again this past spring, neighbors began to once again complain to the Town Board. Volleyball was an addiction spinning out of control.

On July 18, the Board took up the matter of backyard volleyball. It was said that nets were put up, volleyballs brought in, cars parked up and down Gardiner’s Lane, President Street and Harbor Boulevard. There was littering, noise, carrying on. One resident alleged that those holding the events were charging admission, allowing betting, and selling of food and drink, which sort of added to other allegations about the games from earlier years that there might be public drunkenness and urination, even prostitution, which were never proven.

There are laws in the town that require residents to get permits to hold a gathering of more than 50 people on their property, put in years ago to try to deal with things like P Diddy’s first White Party, which caused traffic jams on back roads. But one speaker after another said those in charge of the volleyball were keeping attendance just shy of the 50-person threshold.

One resident told the board that the volleyball problem had been taken to Justice Court, but property owners in the neighborhood had been advised volleyball games were legal, so long as the volleyball nets were taken down after the games. Apparently, there are zoning laws that require permits for outbuildings and pool houses and other accessory structures, and volleyball poles and a net would be considered an accessory structure, but two poles alone would not. They’d just be poles.

Of course, there are laws against selling alcoholic beverages at your home. But they’d need evidence for that.

At that July 18 meeting, the Town assigned Theresa Quigley, the board member who handles affairs in Springs, to come up with a proposal to rein in the controversial volleyball games.

Quigley returned with a proposal for the August 13 meeting. The plan, if passed, would lower the boom on backyard volleyball. The proposal was that volleyball and other events, athletic or otherwise, indoors or out, would need a permit if more than 15 people were involved. And no more than three such events would be allowed each month.

She said enforcement would be complaint-driven. A complaint would come in, and Pat Gunn, the town’s public safety administrator, would go see the alleged offenders and give them a sheet of paper showing where people can congregate and have organized activities in the town if the limit is exceeded.

The proposal sort of fell flat. Responding to a suggestion that the proposal be the subject of a public hearing, board members Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc said they wanted more time to think about it and maybe talk to some of the residents before it could come to that. So the proposal was tabled.

And so, backyard volleyball continued. There were some, it was said, who thought backyard volleyball was crossing into a danger zone.

In the interval after that, town planning officials were asked to identify public places in town where volleyball nets could be set up and show them on a map. The planning board came up with nine locations. They included the soccer fields on Stephen Hand’s Path, the Pantigo Place Ball Fields, the Terry King Ball Field, Bistrian Land Corporation, Fresh Pond Park in Amagansett, the Maidstone Ball Field in Springs and, in Montauk, Benson Point, Lions Field and Camp Hero. At a later meeting, it was pointed out there’s no official place marked off for this activity at these locations.

The complaints continued. One woman said the games were now being run three days a week, every single weekend year-round. She said she couldn’t get out of her street. She couldn’t enjoy her pool and she’d spent thousands of dollars planting trees to block the intrusion. Another woman who said she lived several doors away from a volleyball house claimed she had been suffering for years. The madness, they said, was growing. Quigley, at a Springs Citizens Advisory Committee meeting, said that holding these games five nights a week was intolerable to many neighbors.

On August 17, acting on a tip, police and code enforcement officers entered a volleyball house. But according to Director of Ordinance Enforcement Betsy Bambrick, there were just 25 people on the property, far lower than the 50-person threshold. All cars were on the property. The house was in compliance. “The inside looks good,” she told The Independent. And there were no signs in the kitchen that any meals other than basic family meals were being prepared. The enforcement people left without issuing summonses. Afterwards, some neighbors said they thought the volleyball perpetrators had been tipped off ahead of time.

That was not the case on the weekend of September 21–22, however. Town ordinance enforcers, acting on information provided to them by an informant, swooped in on seven of eleven different backyard volleyball games on Friday. It was a big operation. “I had one of our new Spanish-speaking inspectors accompany a senior inspector to facilitate open communications,” Chief Pat Gunn told The East Hampton Star. “The strategy was to discuss the complaints and explain the applicable laws in a friendly, non-confrontational and inclusive manner in an effort to seek voluntary compliance before initiating more expensive and protracted court charges.”

The inspectors pointed out that some of the “playing courts,” which the volleyball nets and posts and chalk lines on the grass are called, were too close to the property line and therefore in violation of the zoning code for side yard property setbacks and the attendant pyramid requirements. As a result, seven of the 11 volleyball courts were taken down while the inspectors watched. And they were still down when the inspectors returned the next day to have a further look.

After this incident, in an email to The Star, Gunn said he was grateful for the community members who provided him with “the intel,” but said what they had done didn’t guarantee that new backyard volleyball games would not rise up again.

* * *

Since this was written, there have been a few new developments.

One is that the authorities have created two volleyball courts in Springs where locals can play. Both are at the Amagansett Youth Park on Abraham’s Path near the railroad tracks and Town Lane.

Another is that the East Hampton High School Girls Volleyball Team finished the season in a tie with Sayville for the League VI Championship, and continued on into the finals of the Suffolk County Class B division, where they lost to Elwood/John Glenn in two sets out of three last Wednesday ending their year with a record of 13-2. It was a great effort and they are to be congratulated.

And then there’s the State Championship won last week by the Bridgehampton/Pierson High School Girl’s Field Hockey Team in a triumph over the Cazenovia Lady Lakers.

Meanwhile, silence persists involving anything that might need to be done about backyard badminton.

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