Chain Store Law Prompts Cheers and Fears

Speakers at a hearing last Thursday on proposed regulations on chain stores in East Hampton Town were largely in favor of the idea, but some counseled caution and urged the town board to notify individual commercial property owners and give them another chance to weigh in.

“I don’t read the little print on these newspapers,” said Michael Cinque, the owner of Amagansett Wines and Spirits and several Main Street buildings in that hamlet. “Slow this down,” he said. “You should be contacting the people who are affected.”

Under the proposed legislation, businesses deemed “formula stores” would be allowed only in central business districts under a special permit issued by the planning board. They could not, however, be sited within a mile of any historic district’s boundaries, or within a half-mile of a designated historic site.

Additional restrictions, such as 2,500-square-foot size limit, and the inability to use standardized decor or corporate logos, would be imposed under the law, if approved.

In an overview of the draft legislation, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director, said that its goals include maintaining community character and “diverse and vibrant commercial areas.” 

There are central business zones in Wainscott, downtown Montauk and the Montauk harbor area, on North Main Street in East Hampton, and in Amagansett.

There are historic districts or sites within the boundaries outlined in the law in Amagansett, East Hampton, and Montauk, Ms. Wolffsohn said.

According to the draft law, formula businesses would be defined as a retail store, restaurant, bar, or takeout shop that is “under common ownership or is a franchise,” and is one of 10 or more of such businesses worldwide.

Two or more of five attributes — a standardized menu or standardized array of merchandise, with half or more coming from a single distributor; the use of a trademark word, phrase, symbol, or design, on products or as part of store design; a standardized color scheme inside and outside the establishment; standardized interior decor, and the use of a standardized uniform by employees — would also have to apply for a business to fall into the definition.

“The brand is us, it’s East Hampton Town. We are unique; they are not,” said Diana Walker. She referred to a telephone poll conducted in the last weeks in which leading questions were asked. “I would like to propose . . . that the formula store pollsters with their scare tactics — ‘You won’t be able to buy milk’ — be outed,” she said.

“I think it’s a little draconian,” Bonnie Krupinski said of the proposed law. “In doing so we’re really banning all the stores. We certainly need some of these formula-type businesses to maintain the community. We need to look at the economic impact,” she told the board. “I think you’re banning too much.” Under the draft law, she said, restaurants such as the Palm and the East Hampton Grill could be precluded.

“There’s a strange movement going on in America, that corporations have the same rights as individuals,” said Larry Mayer. “I don’t believe they do.” East Hampton’s real estate values are “some of the highest in the world,” he said, “because we don’t have that squalor.”

“Change that works for the common good is not draconian at all,” Larry Smith said later on. “This particular legislation is a bellwether of what this town would be like in a very few years. This is in our hands; it is our responsibility to do it.”

Elaine Jones said that the law would not ban formula stores but simply subject them to particular planning board scrutiny. “I don’t want to look like Riverhead or Southampton,” she said. “I love to go shopping there, but I don’t want East Hampton or Amagansett to look like that.”

Other speakers supported the law because they believe it would help protect locally owned businesses.

“Local stores . . . they sustain our community. They create more jobs here; they keep the money here,” Rona Klopman said.

“The formula stores can pay these really, really high rents, and they’re really going to squeeze the local businesses out,” Sue Avedon said. There is a “very long list” of other communities where similar laws have been enacted, she said.

Maintaining community character is tied in with the economy, said Susan Bratton. “If we allow our town to be sold to the highest bidders, the formula stores, so that the character and the charm are no longer there, it hurts the long-term property values, everyone’s property values. Because no one wants to go to Atlantic City.”

“The spirit is good,” said Freddy Friedler, a property manager for the Amagansett Square shopping area. “But at the same time I feel that it needs to be looked at more thoroughly. We shouldn’t be too narrow-minded and limited about what a formula store is, because it could end up hurting the community as well. Take a good, hard look at the way the legislation is going to be written,” he told the board.

In a memo to the town board, the planning board also suggested that the law, as proposed, “may be too restrictive.” The board agreed with the concept of the law but recommended that it be modified. No suggestions for how that should be done were provided.

Theresa Codispoti, a senior real estate representative for 7-Eleven, read a statement on behalf of the corporation’s regional development director, Ken Barnes. She urged the board to use enforcement of existing zoning laws to achieve desired ends rather than enact the new law.

“The Town of East Hampton already has some of the most restrictive zoning laws in the entire nation,” she said. Her company, she said, is “flexible on store design,” and its goals are “seamlessly weaving into the fabric of the community.”

“People who don’t live here do not understand how important our history and heritage are to us,” Alissa Meyer said. “The control of businesses that come into our town must remain within control of our town.”

Noting that Montauk’s 7-Eleven is the top-grossing 7-Eleven store nationwide, Debra Foster asked, “You don’t think other chains are going to come in?” In addition, she said, East Hampton is “the place for a write-off if you also have a place in Palm Beach.”

“Our local people don’t have a chance,” she said.

On behalf of the East Hampton Business Alliance, Margaret Turner, its executive director, urged the board to complete the planning studies of the various hamlets that are called for in the comprehensive plan, as well as a business needs study also prescribed in the plan, before acting.

“Until the town knows what the town wants and what the town needs, and what local business could handle, legislation like this should not be passed,” she said.

She questioned aspects of the draft law. Prohibiting formula stores in all but central business zones provides only a “very limited area” for such stores, she said. If the concern is chain stores’ appearance, “isn’t that why we have an architectural review board?” she asked. And, she said, the distance requirement from historic areas or sites “seems arbitrary.”

The board should keep in mind, Ms. Turner said, that franchise stores are “individually owned, and often by locals.”

Averill Geus disagreed. She said formula stores are “built, stocked, and run not by the . . . community in which they were built,” but by “some honcho. We already have formula mansions; we certainly don’t need formula stores.”

“The town’s authority to enact this legislation is not perfectly clear,” said Tina Piette, another business property owner. State legislation to clarify a municipality’s rights regarding formula store regulation, sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., is still pending, she said. “I can only assume that this is a race to the law to keep the proposed 7-Eleven from opening in Amagansett.” She said the board should be better informed about the number of properties a new law would affect, and hear from those affected, before acting.

John Broderick addressed that notion. “All legislation is motivated by events or situations,” he said.

Jeanne Frankl warned about the potential impact of delaying action on the proposed law, which, she said, usually means someone considering doing something that would be curtailed “rushes to get in under the line.”

If a new business study reveals that the law should be modified, that could be done, she said. “But in the meantime, we should not let the formula stores take over our town.”