The 7-Eleven Paradigm

Officials must quickly overhaul an aspect of local law that is in need of modification

    America’s top-grossing 7-Eleven is in Montauk, and, according to the franchisee, the location served as many as 4,000 customers a day last summer. Now, a property owner and a different operator would like to bring at least some of that wild success to Amagansett — and there is really nothing in the East Hampton Town Code to stop it.

    Recognizing this and sensing public dissatisfaction, officials went deep into the records to find a way to stall, if not stop, the new convenience store from opening without review of the consequences. This may be all the town can do at this point, but whatever the outcome in Amagansett, officials must quickly overhaul an aspect of local law that is in need of modification lest this or other kinds of highly intensive uses spring up elsewhere.

    The key will be to revise the town code to permit realistic use of commercial properties, first and foremost, an assessment of and specific cap on the number of patrons allowed indoors and out. Applications for such enterprises should trigger stringent site plan review. In the existing code, even if a proposal involves an increase in the number of people who enter in a given 24-hour period — no matter if that figure goes from 100 to 1,000 — no additional scrutiny is needed as long as the zoning is right. This must change.

    A dizzying range of hybrid businesses has sprung up here in recent years as more and more money pours in. What is increasingly clear is that current regulations are not necessarily able to keep up. Increasingly, lawyers and land planners have exploited vagueness and apparent loopholes in the code to win much of what their clients want. This has often come, particularly in summer, at the price of increased traffic, litter, and congestion. With a new administration in Town Hall that has repeatedly expressed sympathy for residents’ interests and community concerns, the prospect for meaningful change is good.

    In the case of the proposed Amagansett 7-Eleven, far more vehicle traffic over the course of a 24-hour period would be generated than under the existing building’s brief incarnation as a 160-seat restaurant — and this on an already busy stretch of Montauk Highway. However, as far as the zoning code is concerned, the two are essentially equal and legal in the property’s central business zoning.

    By no means, however, is the problem limited to 7-Elevens and the like. Consider other examples, such as several Montauk motels and restaurants, including Ruschmeyer’s, the Shepard’s Neck Inn, the Surf Lodge, and the Beach House, which have morphed into something else, with many more patrons crossing their thresholds every day than had been there in earlier guises. Better-written, less-ambiguous, and more strictly applied town laws might have made the difference and prevented now frequent quality-of-life complaints. There is still time to rein them in, especially if they are pre-existing businesses on residentially zoned sites.

    To adequately deal with growth, regulations must be rewritten to include close study of how and to what extent properties are actually going to be used. Development pressure has rapidly outpaced the East Hampton laws meant to constrain and manage it. The sooner the rules are made to reflect this new reality, the better.