To Protect The Sense of Place

The goal is to help places like Main Street, Amagansett, remain unique and intriguing to visitors, and keep jobs and profits in the community

    East Hampton Town’s effort to avoid commercial homogenization is to take a step forward this evening at a Town Hall hearing to gauge public opinion on strict new rules governing so-called formula stores. It is a worthy cause.

    Having seen the soul bled out of East Hampton Village as scores of seasonal trophy shops moved in, town officials hope to do something to protect local and small-scale retailers from rent escalation and to help outlying business districts avoid looking like most of the rest of the country’s. The goal is to help places like  Main Street, Amagansett, remain unique and intriguing to visitors, and keep jobs and profits in the community. 

    If approved, the law would ban chain stores in and within a mile of the town’s four historic districts and within a half-mile radius of officially designated historic structures, such as the new Town Hall, the Selah Lester farm on Three Mile Harbor Road, and the Miss Amelia Cottage in Amagansett. Looking at the details, there appears to be reason to expand these definitions to allow, for example, the protection of Montauk’s dock and downtown areas, and to do something about the blighted Route 27 strip in Wainscott.

    Other cities and towns have adopted such measures. San Francisco is considered a leader in rules that make it tough for corporations to open storefronts in some neighborhoods. Nantucket banned downtown chain stores in 2006. Sonoma, Calif., has been working on its own limits. In East Hampton’s proposed version of the law, chains with 10 or more stores worldwide would require permits and would be subject to detailed scrutiny and public comment before a permit were granted.

    In most cases under current practice in East Hampton Town, prospective businesses only need a building permit if the property and planned uses meet zoning requirements. In the village, this has contributed to a gradual emptying of locally owned shops as rents skyrocketed. What was once a vibrant Main Street and Newtown Lane are now somewhat grim off-season and have become an impersonal mall of interest to day-trippers in summer, which is largely bypassed by residents. As a result, those business owners not backed by deep, corporate budgets have had to look elsewhere, pushing storefronts and offices to the edges — and in some cases illegally — into neighborhoods where people live.

    Low-paying sales jobs are the norm now, with wages and even the dollars for trade services, such as construction, lighting, and cleaning, being spent out of town. Many of the costs remain for locals to bear, however, such as maintaining roads and sidewalks and providing emergency and police services.

    East Hampton Village may be too far gone to save now, barring an unexpected spasm of conscience among the area’s landlords. But it is appropriate for town officials to see what can be done before it’s too late. And while the town proposal will undoubtedly meet with some resistance and may be in need of adjustment, its goals of encouraging businesses to serve the needs of the year-round population, and blocking creeping sameness, are unimpeachable.