Scrutiny For Chain Stores Here

7-Elevens, Gap stores could face new hurdles

A proposed zoning law in East Hampton Town could limit the locations of new chain stores and chain restaurants, requiring their owners to first obtain special permits from the planning board. The businesses would also have to have a “unique visual appearance that is consistent with the character” of East Hampton, according to draft legislation presented by Councilwoman Sylvia Overby at a town board meeting on Tuesday.

Board members agreed to solicit the public’s opinion on it at a hearing, which is yet to be scheduled.

Ms. Overby had introduced the idea of a law to limit the potential for chain businesses, called “formula businesses,” several years ago after the town’s first 7-Eleven store opened in Montauk, causing community members to voice concerns about aesthetics and competition with locally owned businesses. The proposal did not find favor with the majority of the previous board. Recently, plans for a 7-Eleven in Amagansett were unveiled.

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.

For a business to fall into the definition, two or more of five attributes would also have to apply: the existence of 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.

Formula businesses would only be allowed in central business zones, according to the law, although none would be allowed in or within a mile of any historic district, or within a half-mile of any designated historic building.

According to the draft law, the proliferation of formula businesses in East Hampton “threatens” and contradicts several of the town comprehensive plan goals, such as maintaining the town’s rural and semirural character, protecting the environment, reducing build-out, and the protection of historic buildings, areas, landscapes, and vistas.

Under the proposed law, a new location for a chain store, restaurant, bar, or takeout shop could only be established in East Hampton if the planning board issues a special permit after holding a public hearing.

Besides meeting the usual special permit standards, which include a review of the impact of a proposed development on the neighborhood, the planning board would have to apply other standards to a formula business.

The planning board would have to find that the approving the business is consistent with the goals, policies, and standards of the town comprehensive plan, and that the establishment is “compatible with existing surrounding uses.” It would have to be designed and operated “in a nonobtrusive manner to preserve the community’s unique rural and historic character,” according to the draft legislation.

It also calls for an applicant to submit a traffic study, with specific information requested by the planning board, although it would allow the planning board to waive that requirement.

In addition, several design standards would be imposed. The gross floor area of the business would be limited to 2,500 square feet and its street level frontage to a maximum of 65 linear feet, and only one formula business would be allowed in any building or on any single lot. 

The business, according to the draft legislation, could not “contain the features or attributes of the formula business,” except for its service or product, and could not “project a visual appearance that is homogenous with its element in other communities.”

Ms. Overby said Tuesday that the law is similar to those adopted in other towns. Its definition of formula businesses, standards, and purposes reflect those outlined in state legislation initially introduced by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. in 2012, which was designed to make it clear that municipalities have the authority to adopt zoning regulations to limit formula businesses.

New York towns and villages had refrained from doing so, as state law does not address the issue. The state law, which is still before Assembly and Senate committees, would designate the authority for local regulations based on protection of community character and similar concerns. 

In a letter to the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee, which had written Mr. Thiele about chain store regulations when the Montauk 7-Eleven was proposed, the Assemblyman noted that “many formula retailers and restaurants are increasingly locating in downtown and neighborhood business districts,” often arriving “en masse.” The result, he wrote, can be a “speculative run-up in rents” and “long-term economic consequences as the downtown or neighborhood business district loses its distinctive appeal or historic character.”

In several cases, Mr. Thiele wrote, courts ruled that restricting formula stores does not violate the Constitution’s commerce and equal protection clauses, but is a legitimate way of preserving distinctive community character.