A Survival Plan for Businesses

Study to look at what’s here, what’s needed, and where it can or should go

       Anyone stuck in the eastbound morning trade parade that slows traffic on Montauk Highway to a crawl knows that a pretty large percentage of the contractors working in East Hampton Town come from UpIsland.

       But the first phase of a business needs study unveiled by Councilwoman Theresa Quigley last week finds that a full 70 percent of the businesses operating in town are based elsewhere. And of the estimated 1,809 businesses that are located in East Hampton, only 32 percent are located in the proper zoning district.

       The business survey, which was produced by a business needs committee established early this fall, is an effort, Ms. Quigley said, for the town to collect the data it needs to make sound zoning decisions affecting the business community in the future.

       With the clock just about to strike midnight on her term, Councilwoman Quigley presented a resolution at last Thursday night’s town board meeting to allow the committee, made up of local business owners and town representatives, to continue with its current members and to begin the second, and more complex, phase of the study next year after the new town board takes office. It passed by a 3-2 vote, with Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, who will remain on the board, voting against it because, as Mr. Van Scoyoc said, laying out the details of what that phase of the study will address “mandates policy for the incoming board.”

       “You don’t set an agenda; let us put together a business committee,” Ms. Overby said.

       According to the resolution, the next phase of the study would look at 13 different topics, ranging from assessing the needs of local businesses for parking and storage facilities, to an analysis of nonconforming businesses with an eye toward seeing how they can survive without causing undue harm to surrounding residential neighborhoods, to a review of the 111 remaining vacant commercially zoned lots in town.

       “If I were still going to be on the board, I would be very troubled by the study,” Ms. Quigley said at the Dec. 17 meeting. “I would be troubled because a community without business is, frankly, a community that dies on the vine. If we can’t find a way to accommodate businesses, we are in trouble.”

       Of the 68 percent of businesses that are not in business zones, the survey found that 14 percent are in residential zones, and 54 percent operate out of the owner’s home.

       The survey also found that 42 percent of the businesses in town can be classified as home services, such as carpentry, plumbing, or landscaping, 10 percent are professional services, including attorneys, architects, insurance brokers, and banks, 9 percent are food service, 8 percent retail, 6 percent accommodations, and 25 percent classified as “other.”

       The study excluded both East Hampton and Sag Harbor Villages because they are not governed by town zoning laws.

       It found that 31 percent of all busi nesses in town are in the East Hampton School District and 30 percent are the Montauk School District. Springs accounts for 17 percent of all businesses, Amagansett for 15 percent, and Wainscott only 7 percent.

       “Springs, which doesn’t have a hamlet center, has more businesses than Amagansett and Wainscott, which have hamlet centers,” Ms. Quigley said on Dec. 17.

       That is explained, though, because 87 percent of the businesses located in the Springs School District operate out of the home or in a residential district. In East Hampton outside of the village, it is 80 percent while it dips to 66 percent in Amagansett, 59 percent in Wainscott, and only 49 percent in Montauk.

       The study further found that only 4 percent of the lots in town are zoned for commercial and industrial uses, as compared to 94 percent for residential uses. That translates to only 798 acres townwide for commercial or industrial uses, or 2 percent of the total acreage, as compared to 22,696 acres set aside for residential uses, or 64 percent of the total. Another 34 percent, or 1,939 acres, is dedicated to parks and open space.

       “The next step has to be for the town to go through each of every nonconforming business, and find out which ones are permitted, which ones are legal, and which ones are completely illegal,” said Ms. Quigley, who stressed that she was not looking to drive businesses out or ignore the concerns of residents.

       “Do we rezone?” she asked. “Rather than looking for a way to make them illegal, I’m looking for a middle ground.”

       The Dec. 17 work session, the last for the outgoing Republican majority, was marked by a sense of levity that has largely been lacking from the town board’s deliberations this year.

       Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, for instance, joked as Ms. Quigley began her presentation, “She rushed something through again — at great expense to the public!”

       Turning serious, when she had finished, he said that because the town was largely zoned for residential development, local business owners are being squeezed out. “If we upzone from one to five acres, what is the economic impact?” he asked. “You drive generations of families out.”

       Councilman Dominick Stanzione said of the town’s lack of commercially zoned land, “it wasn’t by accident,” and was part of a broader effort to reduce density. He suggested that one way for the town to protect its business community would be to revisit how it looks at nonconforming, preexisting uses as targets to be eliminated.

       “The utility of that zoning tool has become anachronistic,” he said, adding that it “has had a significant negative impact on our economy.”

       “Can we integrate this study into the comprehensive plan,” Mr. Wilkinson asked, “so it doesn’t become a one-off study that sits on a shelf somewhere?”

       Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town’s planning director, who was sitting in the audience, responded that once adopted by the town board, the business needs study would be a tool available for future planning decisions.