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Oct 13, 2014 3:46 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Board To Retool Store Size-Limit Legislation

Oct 15, 2014 10:30 AM

The Southampton Town Board has tabled a bill proposing amendments to expand the requirements for exceeding the town’s 5,000-square-foot cap on commercial stores, legislation seen by some as a chance to halt plans for a CVS drugstore in Bridgehampton.

Because the amendments would most likely need to be resubmitted, and new public hearings held, the tabling will delay, by a month or more, potential enactment of the new requirements for special exceptions to the size cap. Planning Board officials, who are currently reviewing the CVS application, said the amended standards may not apply to the CVS project anyway, unless they are applied retroactively. Nonetheless, the CVS application is expected to take several months to complete because the board has required an in-depth analysis of the proposed drugstore’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

Following a public hearing before the Town Board last month, at which lawmakers heard criticisms from representatives of small-business owners, the board and planning officials decided to tailor some of the proposed amendments to lessen the burden the new rules would impose on a small businesses looking to expand.

The changes will most likely mean the bill will have to be resubmitted and scheduled for a new round of public hearings, meaning the adoption of the rule changes would be put off by several weeks. The board tabled the public hearing on the present bill until October 28.

The proposal the board had been considering would have added a package of requirements for businesses seeking a special exception permit to the town’s 5,000-square foot cap on the size of a commercial space in hamlet centers, necessitating in-depth studies of the impacts the business would have on the parking, traffic and character of the hamlet or business district in which it was to operate.

At the public hearing on September 23, attorneys for the CVS-Caremark corporation blasted the law as blatantly illegal and overstepping the Town Board’s authority to regulate businesses.

The amendments have widely been seen as an attempt by the town to block CVS from opening the 9,000-square-foot store proposed at Bridgehampton’s main intersection. Town officials, however, have flatly denied that the rules were intended to block the CVS, even though the application is what brought to light the fact that the existing code does not provide much in the way of direction for the Planning Board about what criteria should be considered in granting a special exception permit to the size cap.

But small businesses simply looking to expand their existing space could also be caught up in the amended law, critics said. Former Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney, speaking on behalf of the Southampton Business Alliance, told the board that the law could force a small-business owner to shoulder the expense and time of contracting for costly studies and reports on the impacts of their expansion—something board members now acknowledge was not something they wished to impose on businesses.

“There were some unintended consequences of the law that the [Southampton Business Alliance] felt would hurt smaller businesses,” Town Councilwoman Christine Scalera, one of the sponsors of the bill, said this week. “I want to more narrowly focus on what we’re trying to address: trip generations, traffic and the character of the community.”

Ms. Scalera said she expects the changes made to be substantial enough to require that the legislation be resubmitted as a new proposal, requiring the scheduling of a new public hearing.

According to Town Planning Board chairman Dennis Finnerty, the changes wouldn’t have had an immediate affect on CVS Caremark’s special exception permit application unless they were applied retroactively. What is at stake for the application now—and what will ultimately determine the direction in which the Planning Board steers its decision—are the findings of an environmental impact statement on which the Planning Board granted a positive declaration at its regular meeting last Thursday, October 9.

The study was called for as part of an overall New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, determination. The study is expected to consist of an analysis of all the environmental impacts related to the CVS, ways to reduce those impacts, and possible alternative uses of the property.

“Once it’s finalized, then our decision will be based on the finalizings of that report,” Mr. Finnerty said. “We’re really bound by the terms and provisions of that study.”

The need for an EIS was determined after an environmental assessment statement, a checklist that evaluates the severity of many environmental factors that have to be considered with an application. Mr. Finnerty explained that traffic, community character and building aesthetics were the biggest concerns Planning Board members checked off on the list regarding the CVS application.

The EAS was not yet available for review when requested at Town Hall.

Mr. Finnerty projected that the environmental impact statement—which was optional under the application’s SEQRA classification—could take a minimum of three to four months to complete. He pointed out that an EIS for renovations to the historic Bull’s Head Inn in Bridgehampton, which is located on one of the corners of the same intersection where the CVS would be, took almost two years to finalize.

John Bennett, the attorney representing CVS, said the board “caved to political pressure” in its decision. The CVS application has drawn a large amount of criticism from Bridgehampton residents, who have claimed that the pharmacy would be problematic for traffic in what is perhaps the most troublesome part of the hamlet for motorists.

“I think it’s illegal and an abuse at their discretion. Everything that they are saying that they have to explore in an EIS, they already explored and gave a negative declaration for when the building was approved,” Mr. Bennett said, referring to the structure that is currently being built at 2510 Montauk Highway, which was approved in 2009. “There’s a CVS in the Village of Southampton. There’s a CVS in the Village of East Hampton. The world hasn’t come to an end. It’s a very clean and orderly use.”

But Mr. Finnerty stressed that the board wants to approach its decision with caution and make sure the application is viewed from all angles before it is approved or denied.

“We’re not allowed to really respond to what they call ‘general community opposition.’ We’re aware there’s public interest. But we really only function in a procedural manner based on the state-mandated guidelines,” he said. “The applicants are alleging that we’re buckling under political pressure, community pressure. And nothing could be farther from the truth.

“We’re not going to be cutting any corners on this one,” he continued.

There will be a public input, however, on scoping documents for the EIS. Mr. Finnerty said those documents will outline the nature of the study and what exactly is going to be analyzed, and residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on the issues of traffic, community character and building aesthetics, as they pertain to CVS, in order to help shape the procedure.

Mr. Finnerty could not say when that hearing will be, except that it will take place as soon as CVS Caremark prepares the documents.

“The ball is in their court now,” he said.

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