Throng Of Opponents Deride A&P Proposal

By Josh Lawrence

(Sept. 26, 1996) At a three-and-a-half-hour public hearing drawing more than 300 people, opponents of the proposed A&P supermarket warned of suburban sprawl, destabilization of existing village businesses, and, as one speaker put it, putting the "quality of shopping over the quality of life."

The turnout at the hearing was so large, it had to be relocated from Town Hall to Guild Hall's John Drew Theater at the last minute.

Supporters of the proposed 34,878-square-foot store on the former Stern's site on Pantigo Road, East Hampton, were scarce. In fact, only two members of the crowd spoke in favor of the market, while the rest spoke vehemently in support of the East Hampton Town Board's proposed "superstore legislation," drafted to control the size and location of large retail stores and supermarkets. Though the A&P took center stage, Friday's hearing was on the law itself.

Town Supervisor Cathy Lester prefaced the hearing by stressing the board was "here today not to prohibit a new supermarket, but to determine if one particular zoning category is appropriate for a supermarket, and if some limitations should be placed on certain uses."

The legislation would prohibit any retail stores spanning more than 15,000 square feet and would cap supermarkets at a maximum of 25,000 square feet. Supermarkets would be allowed in "central business" zoning districts only and held to strict design standards.

Sense Of Place

Ms. Lester said the board's decision on the law "will probably have the greatest impact on East Hampton since zoning was first created in 1957" and "will determine if East Hampton will retain and preserve its unique sense of place or become one of the same ordinary commercial communities which have invaded many small-town American communities, threatening Main Street, U.S.A."

Joseph Kelley, a frequent critic of the board, saw the law differently. "To me, this is something against free enterprise," he said, taking the first slot at the podium. His comments supporting the A&P drew booing and hissing from the restless crowd, as did other pro-A&P comments.

Parade Of Opponents

The parade of more than 30 speakers that followed blasted not only A&P's proposal, but the three-week advertising and public relations blitz that has made the store the town's most prominent issue. However, many agreed with the need for a new, smaller-scale supermarket in town.

"I haven't been treated this badly by a large corporation since basic training," said Richard Lupoletti of East Hampton, who heads the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society.

Edward Bleier, another East Hampton resident, called the ad campaign "high-pressure spinmeistering" meant "to divide the community."

"If I had just read their coupon, it looks great," said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the South Fork. "It looks like Camelot. I'd sign it. I'd send it right in today. To me, that signifies the nature of big-box corporate development."

Spreading Sprawl

Mr. DeLuca, along with the Group for the South Fork's attorney, Carolyn Zenk, warned against allowing large-scale retail outside of village centers and the "colonization effect" it would have along the highway.

"This is how sprawl spreads," Mr. DeLuca said, "from central business zone to central business zone. The problem with the A&P is not just its size, but its location. It's right between two central business zones, and it can only encourage the same type of sprawl that has occurred all over Long Island."

Other speakers, like Christine Guglielmo of East Hampton, worried about the effect of A&P's one-stop convenience on smaller shop owners. "I don't want to see anything that would jeopardize the stability of these businesses, which are so important to our community. To be honest, I've never seen a Little League team with the A&P logo."

Quality Of Life

In agreement was Paul Goldberger, a Skimhampton Road resident and chief culture correspondent for The New York Times. "We cannot put long-term convenience over the long-term health of East Hampton, nor quality of shopping over quality of life," he said. He called the A&P the "first step on the road to Sunrise Highway" and urged the board "not to sell East Hampton's birthright for a mess of A&P pottage."

Despite the lopsided turnout, supporters of the A&P were silently represented by a stack of 4,000 returned mailings signed in favor of the store. It loomed in front of the Town Board's table throughout the hearing.

John Mullen of Mullen & McCaffrey Direct Response, the firm that orchestrated the A&P's ad campaign, also announced the results of a second telephone survey on the A&P. Of 301 town residents polled, 50.3 percent said they favored "the building of a new A&P store," at the Stern's location; 25.6 percent said they opposed it, and 24 percent said they were undecided.

Poll Shows Support

"For the first time, there is a majority in East Hampton that supports the A&P by a margin of two to one," said Mr. Mullen. He asked the board to give the public more time to digest the issue.

'Right now, the cash registers in Bridgehampton are ringing with East Hampton money.'

Roger Turley

"It's important to know how all residents think about the A&P. This hearing gives no indication of how everyone in this town thinks on this issue. It's not a scientific indicator. It's a demonstration."

As it had a week ago, the board criticized the A&P for entering the deliberations at the last hour. Members were also skeptical of the poll's results and the significance of the coupons. Councilwoman Nancy McCaffrey called the poll "skewed" because its main question failed to describe the scope of the supermarket.

"No" Votes In Trash

Councilmen Len Bernard and Peter Hammerle tried to put the number of coupons in context, asking what percentage of the mailings the 4,000 returns represented. A total of 30,000 of the glossy brochures carrying the coupons was printed; 15,000 of them were mailed to households, and the remainder were given to the A&P for distribution at the store and elsewhere.

The board's decision on the superstore law 'will probably have the greatest impact on East Hampton since zoning was first created in 1957.'

Cathy Lester

"There's a potential for 26,000 people, then, to be opposed," said Mr. Hammerle. "Perhaps if you had given them the opportunity to fill out a card, you may have heard from them. . . . My mom thought the only way to respond in opposition was to throw it in the garbage."

William J. Fleming, an East Hampton attorney representing the A&P, charged the board was making a "pell-mell rush to stop the A&P and has given the appearance that it has made up its mind already." He asked that the hearing be kept open and possibly continued at another time in the evening, so working people could attend.

Smaller Than King Kullen

"This law will leave a huge gap in the zoning code," said Mr. Fleming. "Realistically, there are no central business zones where a supermarket can be built. . . . It will leave a mandate to drive to Bridgehampton to get groceries."

Mr. Fleming joined many of the speakers in criticizing the current A&P, saying that "there's no ability in that store to service this town in any realistic, year-round way."

Roger Turley, an A&P vice president, also spoke on behalf of the corporation. "A&P is trying to solve the shopping needs in the town. The town needs a new store. The residents want it, and we want to do it. We're not asking for a 60,000-square-foot store like in Bridgehampton; we're just asking for what we need."

Mr. Turley added that the proposed 25,000-square-foot cap on supermarkets, "may be a nice round number, but it bears no relevance to the minimum space that's needed to adequately, efficiently, and effectively serve our customers. . . . Right now, the cash registers in Bridgehampton are ringing with East Hampton money."

Making Right Choices

Despite the pitch, residents continued to bash the king-sized supermarket and urged the board to act on the superstore law.

Russell Stein, a former town attorney who represents the Stern's Watchdog Committee, called the law "a fair, reasonable, and effective piece of legislation" and "the first step in making sure [developments] occur where they should and in the proper scale."

Mr. Stein pointed to some of the important planning and zoning decisions made by Town Boards over the years to preserve East Hampton's character.

The effort, he said, "has been bipartisan, it's been consistent, and it's one of the reasons we all have property that's valuable - because boards like this have made the right choices. We are absolutely convinced you will do it again."

Averill Dayton Geus, the historic site manager for East Hampton Village, made a more emotional pitch: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart [for legislation] that will protect East Hampton from becoming a carbon copy of the development that has consumed the rest of Long Island."

'We cannot put long-term convenience over the long-term health of East Hampton, nor quality of shopping over quality of life.'
Paul Goldberger

The board agreed to keep the hearing record open for written comments until Monday. As there appears to be unanimous support for the measure from the board, it is expected to be adopted shortly.

How the A&P will respond to the passage of the law is not yet clear.

"The A&P is going to wait and see what happens," said its lawyer, Mr. Fleming. "They think the 4,000 coupons says there's a need in the town. If we're talking about a real measure of public opinion, it's not just the loud voices at the hearing Friday."

The presence at the hearing of William Esseks, a lawyer who frequently represents developers in litigation against the town, may indicate its intent to take legal action. Mr. Esseks confirmed yesterday that he has been consulted by the A&P.