June 14, 2006

Residents Speak Out About Big Box Stores

Scores of Southold residents packed Town Hall June 6 for a public hearing regarding size limitations on retail businesses.

Although the hearing was the third held to discuss limitations to curtail growth of retail businesses in Southold, it was clear from the impassioned comments of the crowd that the issue is still one that residents care deeply about. 

Last Week's public hearing was held to discuss amendments to the town code regarding size and use regulations in the hamlet business and business districts.

In the hamlet business center, retail stores greater than 3000 total square feet would be required to comply with design standards and reviewed by both the planning and architectural review boards.

Retail businesses between 6000 and 12,000 square feet could still be accommodated by special exception, providing an impact statement is submitted by the applicant.

In the business-zoned district, an applicant would be allowed up to 4000 square feet as of right, with design standards required for a retail stores between 4000 and 8000 feet. A retail business between 8000 and 15,000 square feet would be permitted by special permit as well as an impact statement paid for by the applicant.

Members of the public had serious concerns about the legislation. Southold attorney and resident Patricia Moore pointed out that the term "gross floor area" actually includes basements and hallways, and could pose a problem for retail businesses limited in their gross floor area size.

Certain businesses such as car and boat dealerships, she said, "need a large area of floor space" and would be limited by the requirements in the proposed code.

"You're casting a very broad net," she said. "You're going to be hurting a lot of existing businesses."

The gross floor area component, said Moore, "is a very serious flaw."

John Nickles, Jr., representing the Southold Small Business Alliance pointed out the proposed legislation does not address the issue of use, key to maintaining the town's character, but focuses instead on size and appearance. "You have to talk about use," he insisted.

Nickles acknowledged the town "is on difficult legal ground," but advised the town to look at communities around the country and how they have handled the problem successfully.

"If people think we're going to pass this legislation and not have a CVS or a Starbucks they are mistaken," he said. Nickles believes that the legislation could harm the small business owner in Southold and questioned the economic impact of the proposed changes. "We've turned a blind eye to the business community for too long," he said.

Nickles comments were met with enthusiastic applause as realtor Tom McCarthy took to the podium, where he agreed that pre-existing businesses, including supermarkets such as the Southold IGA, could suffer from the new legislation.

McCarthy also questioned points of the legislation, including front façades, and pointed out that, for example, not all doors currently face the street; some face parking lots. "There is not enough practical interpretation built into the code," he said.

He added: "As you cast too broad of a net, you're going to be hurting a lot of smaller folks in town."

The hearing was preceded by a December hearing and another last October, when over 900 signatures were presented to the board reflecting the views of Southold residents rallying against big box stores in their town.

A number of changes in the code have evolved as the board has taken public comment into account: First, the size limitations were increased, and the initial suggestion of accessory apartments were eliminated from the plan.

A temporary 90-day moratorium was enacted on October 4, 2005 after an application for a building permit was received on July 8. The application, for a proposed CVS pharmacy at 53530 Main Road in Southold on a 2.25-acre parcel of property, was submitted by RIPCO Real Estate IV Corporation, and was subsequently denied.

The moratorium, which has been extended twice, is set to expire June 30, 2006.

Councilman Bill Edwards, a former retail executive, said he had never thought of gross floor area as including basement space and agreed that changes needed to be made.

"We have to be very sensitive to the fact that we have certain goals, to stop franchises from encroaching," said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. But, he said that he didn't want to impede the growth of local businesses. "It's been a wrestling match the whole time," he said.

The hearing was closed, and the board agreed to take comments under consideration and discuss the matter further in the future.

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