Town Shuts Down Summer House Following Failed Inspections

David Creed •

Summer House Graphic

The Summer House in Sconset won’t open for the season as planned on Friday after it failed inspections by several town departments.

“It was a joint decision with Fire, Building, and Health,” Nantucket Health Director Roberto Santamaria said when asked about the closure. “The Fire Department and Building Department discovered a significant amount of code violations regarding their plumbing and gas fitting renovations. The violations were significant enough that there was a life-safety issue. The departments believed that an immediate closure was necessary to prevent any potential danger to the public.”

Two sources with knowledge of the situation told the Current that these violations stem from some “significant unpermitted and dangerous gas work” that led to the removal of gas tanks from the property.

The Summer House, a mainstay in the Sconset area for decades that includes a hotel and restaurant, was scheduled to open today. It would have marked the beginning of its 44th season. Danielle deBenedictis, the owner of The Summer House, denied the town's claim that it had closed the hotel down.

“The Summer House is not closed. It just has not yet opened for the season,” deBenedictis told the Current. “We are working with the town to do the necessary work to open as soon as possible and look forward to a 44th wonderful season.”

deBenedictis has been in the news recently as a central figure in the ongoing saga of the proposed clam shack restaurant on Straight Wharf, as she represents billionaire Charles Johnson in his opposition to the 62-seat restaurant next door to property he owns on Old North Wharf. She has argued on behalf of Johnson that the clam shack was not properly permitted. 

A Summer House guest who asked to remain anonymous reached out to the Current on Thursday to say that their reservation from Friday through Sunday had been canceled Wednesday night with no explanation.

"Just an email saying (the reservation) was canceled and we were refunded," the guest said. "No explanation. Couldn't get ahold of anyone. We got a cottage at the Boat Basin."

Town Plumbing inspector Doug Bennett told the Current he did not want to go into much detail about what specifically led to the immediate closure, but did confirm that it stemmed from plumbing and gas violations. He said there was work being done without the required permits, and that it was done by workers who were not licensed.

Activity could be seen outside of The Summer House on Thursday. There was a dumpster filled with various sorts of debris outside of the property with a couple of workers landscaping the area. A pair of Planning & Land Use Services (PLUS) vehicles also arrived at the property and PLUS personnel proceeded to inspect the area.

Nantucket Fire Chief Michael Cranson is away and was not available for immediate comment. The Current did not receive an immediate response from the Nantucket Building Commissioner Paul Murphy.

We also asked deBenedictis for comment on the claim from town officials that there were a significant number of code violations found on the property causing a life safety issue, but have not received a reply.

The management and upkeep of The Summer House have been a talking point on-island for years and was discussed extensively at the May 17 Select Board meeting, when the history of violations at the property was presented to the Board. The background was raised as the Select Board members discussed a pair of proposed amendments to the seasonal liquor license for The Summer House Bistro, which included a request to add 10 six-top tables to its beach seating.

Town Licensing administrator Amy Baxter told the Board that her hesitation to recommend approval of the amendment was not the additional seats but rather the poor record of management at the property.

“No one in any capacity of the town is opposed to seats in the sand. It is a beautiful location. My own family always enjoyed dining there. That is not the point we are making in the comments we have included,” Baxter said. “It is about the lack of proper management for years and well beyond the eight years I have been in this position. When I started it was told to me some history in this location of just difficulty with management and inspections. This location along with the main building and previously another property owned by this applicant, 29 Fair Street, have really led the town in violations or non-compliance on every level.”

Ultimately the recommendation provided to the board was to issue a final warning to deBenedictis and The Summer House.

“However, it must be made clear that moving forward there are no more warnings left to give,” the recommendation reads.

Baxter also attached documents outlining the history of violations at The Summer House that had occurred within the last five years.

These photos were included in the May 17, 2023, Select Board Agenda Packet.

Some of the violations and concerns included the disposal of contaminated soils after a “pond of raw sewage” was found behind the Bistro. This required the Nantucket Sewer Department to respond and address the area, as well as the improper storage of chemicals and spilled paint on the ground.

In a September 15, 2022 letter from Nantucket Health Department inspector Cathy Flynn to former Summer House Restaurant manager Juan Ponce, Flynn stated that several violations were observed during a routine inspection.

Five citations were issued for problems such as a "Roll Your Own Tobacco Machine" with loose tobacco and filter tubes observed in food storage, an order that all kitchen floors and equipment needed to be cleaned frequently, boxes of onions and apples on the floor, a low-temperature dishwasher that had no sanitizing solution with a sanitizing tube inserted into rinse additive solution, and food prep employees observed in the salad station, as well as the chef behind the line, not wearing hats.

Nantucket Fire Department fire prevention officer Joe Townsend said in a 2019 email to Baxter that after inspecting the Bistro, it did not pass for several reasons including electrical plugs that were overloaded, smoking materials found behind the bar, a boiler in the pump room that was missing a pilot cover and had insulation exposed, exposed lighting wires in the liquor room, an inability to produce any fire suppression, alarm, or hood cleaning reports, amongst other factors. 

Baxter said in a 2018 email to former restaurant manager Peter Karlson that she observed the Bistro serving alcohol on several occasions outside of the approved licensed premises as well.

deBenedictis and The Summer House weren't without any support, however, at the hearing last month. Along with the documents outlining violations, there were also over a half dozen letters from residents and property owners in support of The Summer House's requested beach seating.

When deBenedictis spoke at this Select Board meeting, she said she was still in a state of shock last summer over the death of her husband. She felt like she was in a much better place to oversee a successful year for The Summer House.

"It took me a while to recover from that," she said. "I was not actively involved in the business last summer. I feel much stronger now and I have hired a very good manager who is here with me. He is somebody I have known for many years from Palm Beach and as you can see, he is properly attired, he is a professional, he knows the rules and regulations, and we intend to fully comply and work with Amy (Baxter)."

Baxter responded by saying that these discussions are the tough part of the job. She said The Summer House is a beautiful location and that she wanted it to work out.

"I am trying to represent my colleagues who have gone through this and it wasn't just last year," Baxter said. "We brought up the most recent issues but please know that this is difficult to deal with and bring up, but it needs to be addressed.

"Hopefully they can do (what deBenedictis said) and I hope the new manager is capable of that," Baxter continued. "We are in no way wanting it to continue. Hopefully, we don't have to talk very much anymore, we will do our inspections, and we will get off with the season like we do with 90 percent of the other 102 licenses we have."

This story will be updated as more information on the inspection becomes available.

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