East Hampton Town Hall was crowded last Thursday for a hearing on a proposed law that would strictly limit how and where so-called formula stores can be opened. In general, blocking the homogenization of the town’s commercial strips will be important to maintaining the area’s desirability among second-home owners and tourists. However, several aspects of the proposal should be looked at closely before going further.
In short, the law would ban chains and franchises with 10 or more worldwide branches except in central business zones. They would be prohibited in portions of those zones that are designated as historic districts, within a mile of a historic district, and within a half mile of a historic landmark. Even where they would be allowed, formula retailers would be subject to tough limitations.
It is in these limits that the proposal appears to have gone too far. Perhaps the most extreme provision is limiting formula stores to no more than 2,500 square feet of floor area. This would appear to unfairly benefit all other retail businesses, which under present law can be up to six times as large.
This arbitrary square-foot maximum might have the unintended consequence of preventing the kind of stores residents might actually want here, for example, a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s market, unless a specific exemption were made. Furthermore, it is almost certain that this substantial impediment would be challenged in court, as might restrictions on how interior space is decorated.
There is also reason for concern that the wording of the proposal might turn out to block or limit the size of locally owned shops that are part of large distribution chains or use nationally recognized logos or uniforms. These might include some supermarkets, hardware stores, and paint suppliers, among others.
It should be noted that fast food restaurants are already subject to permit standards, including that their design must conform to the “traditional and indigenous style” of East Hampton architecture. Drive-through windows are controlled in such a way as to make them nearly impossible to get through the permitting process.
These rules could be a model for more equitable formula store regulation. The East Hampton Town Board is to be commended for attempting to make sure that new retail development meets the overall goal of keeping the town unique, but more work needs to be done.