The formation of a citizens committee charged with collecting information about businesses and their needs appears to be on the horizon, after a plea from a business organization leader that East Hampton Town officials base decisions affecting business owners on actual data, rather than speculation.
Margaret Turner, the executive director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, spoke to the town board at a meeting last Thursday, highlighting recent discussions about a town code change that would make it easier to cite certain businesses being run in residential areas for illegal operation.
The proposed code change pertains to the parking of large trucks on residential lots.
“There are no true statistics,” Ms. Turner told the town board. “You have no idea of the numbers of vehicles that will be displaced.” She said the business community does not dispute that homeowners whose neighbors are illegally operating businesses need relief. “But,” she said, “you need to consider how the problem got started in the first place. We feel it was poor, or lack of, planning.”
There is a vacuum, Ms. Turner said, where long-term plans for the town’s economy are concerned.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley jumped on the idea of creating a group to gather information on businesses, similar to one she led that presented the board with information regarding housing.
“I think it is important that this town come up with data,” Ms. Quigley said at a board work session on Tuesday. “We have no stats for our businesses; it’s time we get the stats. With that, this town will be better able to make decisions that affect businesses in this town.”
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc questioned the scope of the committee’s tasks, and its ultimate goal. “Because business, while it’s a major component of our town, and it provides jobs — it’s part of the fabric of our town — it’s got to be balanced,” he said. “So, are we looking to try to improve the business climate?”
“I want to know what the town provides in terms of zoning; what their needs are . . . in terms of infrastructure,” Ms. Quigley said. “This is about data; somebody else can interpret it. There are no results considered.”
Ms. Turner said she envisioned a “multi-pronged approach,” beginning with the collection of “basic data” about numbers of businesses, what types, and their locations, as well as their needs. “What do they need in terms of survival, what do they need to grow their businesses?” Ms. Turner asked. “Can all of their needs be met? Probably not,” she said. “But there can certainly be a lot more assistance from the town.”
The town’s comprehensive plan, last updated in 2005, called for several undertakings that have not been addressed, including planning studies of individual hamlets, an erosion-control plan, and a business-needs study, Mr. Van Scoyoc noted. “There are a number of unfinished items,” he said.
With building department and assessors’ records, and the like, the town has “a lot of data,” the councilman said. Councilwoman Sylvia Overby agreed.
“We have garbage,” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said.
Ms. Quigley said she envisioned including members of varied professions among the appointed committee members, who could provide information about the numbers of businesses here within their category. She had suggested a similar approach for completion of a planning study on the hamlet of Wainscott, charging its citizens advisory committee members with pulling it together with the help of town staff.
But Ms. Overby suggested that a professional planning consultant was in order. “This needs to be done professionally,” she said. “The hamlet studies need to be done professionally. We get a better outcome . . . it’s not done just by citizens getting together.” She cited several planning studies commissioned by the town in the past that provided a wide-ranging overview of pertinent issues as well as recommendations.
Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson protested. “Every time we need a professional, we go outside,” Mr. Wilkinson complained. “If we don’t have the asset inside, we should get rid of the assets who aren’t doing the job.”
“We are understaffed,” Ms. Overby said.
Ms. Turner said she had learned at a recent county-sponsored forum that other East End towns have staff members dedicated to long-term planning and economic development. “They . . . have in-house planners who are working on what they want their town to look like 5 or 10 years down the road,” she said.