State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.’s interest in taking up the question of whether local governments can regulate chain or “formula” stores is welcome, and East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley should drop the huffiness and be willing to consider the possibility. East Hampton should not some day look and feel like anywhere else in strip-malled America, and it is up to town officials to see that it does not.
There is no town ban on chain or “big-box” stores, nor would a ban be legal. What some communities — not many to be sure — have done is told businesses with more than, say, a dozen branches that they must meet local design standards. Courts have ruled that carefully written regulations pass constitutional muster, Mr. Thiele has said.
In Northern California, the Sonoma City Council has been working for some time on rules that would govern where and how large retail corporations could open outposts. The draft ordinance now with the city’s planning commission strictly restricts where new restaurants with 250 or more outlets, such as McDonald’s or Starbucks, can go. The draft also asks retailers with 10 or more stores to apply for a permit, with the intention of giving an edge to unique, locally owned operations. The idea is to keep profits in the area instead of seeing them piped off to distant corporate offices, and to maintain the city’s attractive character.
There are opponents, of course, who say that any business is good business and that Sonoma should not stand in the way of commerce. Liberal darlings like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, they point out, might be scared off. And who could be against ice cream? This point of view has audible echoes here.
At an East Hampton meeting last week, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley reacted negatively when the subject came up, objecting specifically to news that Councilwoman Sylvia Overby had shared information about chain store regulations with some members of the news media. Their reaction was influenced by complaints from Ms. Overby and her Democratic colleague on the board, Peter Van Scoyoc, that as minority-party board members they were not seeing meeting agendas until the last minute.
The unfortunate effect of this is that the prospects for movement on chain stores are slim. Ms. Quigley said last week that she did not see a need to add new requirements. This is significant, as she and Mr. Wilkinson tend to see eye-to-eye on land-use questions, and Dominick Stanzione, who is emerging as a moderate voice on the town board, has not been willing to buck his two fellow Republicans on any big-ticket issues.
While not universal, it appears that many East Hampton residents favor some kind of limits. Consider the strongly negative reaction to the 7-Eleven store in Montauk and to one that was said to be planned for Amagansett. It is our hope — and what is more important, that of a considerable proportion of residents — that the discussion of additional, modern regulation of new retail operations does not die a death in partisan bickering.