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Eyes on Springs General Store Plans

Thu, 10/12/2023 - 11:35

Liquor licenses, now in hand, remain a sticking point

A rendering shows what the new owners of the Springs General Store hope the building will look like when renovations are complete. Wine would be sold from the shed behind the old gas pumps.
Practical Arts

In the sometimes surprising world of historic renovations, turns out a wintertime pipe burst could lead to an Americans with Disabilities-compliant access ramp.

That was one piece of good news delivered to the East Hampton Town Planning Board last week by John Bennett, a lawyer speaking for his sons, Daniel and Evan Bennett, who own the Springs General Store with Jonas Lafortezza. The local landmark has been shuttered for just over a year. The insurance money gained from the burst pipe allowed the owners to reconfigure an old A.D.A. access plan, resulting in a much better outcome and more extensive interior renovations, which were shared with the board.

Mr. Bennett also outlined a revegetation plan and reported progress on a grant application for a low-nitrogen septic system.

Oh, and they obtained two separate liquor licenses.

Those licenses, one for on-premises consumption and the other for off-premise consumption, were central to the owners’ vision for the store, but also to the planning board’s anxieties.

“You have one business yards away with an on-premises license. You have another that’s off- premises, but you’re allowing the off-premises purchases to be consumed at the on-premises licensed business,” said Louis Cortese, a board member, as if he were working through an equation with a missing variable.

The property is zoned for neighborhood business and is allowed two separate uses. The Bennetts have been in front of the planning board for over a year now trying to convert the kayak rental use, which they’ll discontinue, to a retail use. They plan to convert a storage shed on the property to a small wine store. They also want to add an inside table to the general store. That might sound simple, but the Springs General Store is no simple store.

“You didn’t buy this just to run a grocery store,” said Samuel Kramer, the board chairman, recognizing the import and uniqueness of its location. Because the planning board has been burned before watching old beloved businesses morph into unwanted complaint factories, it sensed the need for caution and clarity.

The meeting started with Mr. Bennett saying they not only understood but shared the concerns of the planning board regarding alcohol at the Springs General Store. He listed the ways they planned to self-regulate so that the store would not turn into “an out of control, alcohol fueled, gin mill.” He said his sons have owned and operated late-night party joints in the city for years and “they’re sick and tired of that sort of stuff.”

First, he said Springs General doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy for a bar or restaurant, only for a food store. The proposed wine shed is only 175 square feet, so the size alone is self-regulating. The revegetation plan, which would add over 11,000 square feet of native plantings, including 40 red cedar trees, 57 groundsel bushes, 91 bayberries, and 22 marsh elders, would cut by 25 percent the amount of lawn where people could gather. The access to the water would be closed off by the new plantings, removing that draw.

They propose to close the store at 9 p.m., well before the hours when problem drinking begins, Mr. Bennett said. Had they wanted to turn the place into the bacchanalian hangout the board fears, they would have done so already, he said. Since they received their liquor licenses in January, Mr. Bennett said they could have sold alcohol there through the summer, but showed their good faith in not doing so.

In short, he said his sons and their partner want to turn the store into “a new and improved version” of its old self.

Mr. Cortese complimented Mr. Bennett and extolled the positive aspects of the application. The A.D.A. access (“a great solution”), the extent and choice of native plants in the revegetation plan, and the upgraded septic. (While Mr. Bennett said this was conditioned on receiving a grant, Mr. Cortese was hopeful it would be awarded.) As for the liquor licenses, he wondered whether any covenants and restrictions the board developed could be included in the issued State Liquor Authority license.

Ed Krug, a board member, and “daily patron” of the old store said the place was a known hangout. “It has that history and reputation. Adding alcohol to the mix is problematic. No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to not have this be the thing we don’t want it to be.”

Because the store sits in the Springs Historic District, Ian Calder-Piedmonte, another board member, suggested they bring their plans to the Architectural Review Board quickly, “just in case there’s a big disagreement, so you can get it out of the way.” He said if the S.L.A. permit was broader than what the town would allow, “That won’t be helpful.”

“I love so much about this. It’s a great improvement, but I don’t want to see people drinking on the premises,” Michael Hansen, another board member, said in summation.

“This is one of the most important assets in this town and your applicants own it. We want them to succeed,” Mr. Kramer said. “You did a great job of clearing the decks of just about all the other issues,” but now, he said, the board needs more clarity on the alcohol sales before it can grant a change of use.

“If you just left that license alone you wouldn’t be happy with it; it’s very broad,” said Mr. Bennett. “That’s why I’m here committing to you, we want to do something quite more restrictive than what it allows.” But the board wasn’t convinced, or comfortable.

“There’s a strangeness here,” said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte. Much crosstalk ensued. Mr. Bennett wanted the S.L.A. licenses to remain as they were, and to control the operations of the store through covenants and restrictions, while the planning board clearly wanted to explore Mr. Cortese’s idea to have the licenses altered to incorporate the town’s concerns.

“I caution anyone mucking in that. Your jurisdiction is whatever it is,” said Mr. Bennett.

“Our jurisdiction is whatever it is, and we’ll find out what it is,” said Mr. Kramer.

So, things had gotten tense, but while they had already been at it for well over an hour, there were further points of contention. “Where do the people pee, is the question,” said Randy Parsons, a board member.

The board worried that the Suffolk County Department of Health waste flow rates for grocery stores might not accurately describe the flow rates at the new Springs General Store. They wanted Mr. Bennett to check with the county. “You’re mixing apples and oranges,” he told the board, refusing. “I don’t need approval of the Health Department for a sanitary system. I am offering it as a result of the request of these board members.”

“The potentially relevant factor is on-site consumption,” said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte. “Because the Health Department doesn’t anticipate, maybe, a retail store having people hanging out drinking.”

“You’re now making up your own Health Department regulations,” said Mr. Bennett. “Gentlemen, I’m not going to let you do it.”

An existing generator, diesel, that would be moved closer to a neighbor’s lot line was another issue. “If you’re moving it closer to a neighbor’s house because it’s ugly and you don’t meet setbacks, I think it’s a problem,” said Mr. Calder-Piedmonte.

“The application in terms of meeting the code requirements is complete,” said Mr. Bennett.

“We disagree,” said Mr. Kramer.

Mr. Bennett agreed to get the S.L.A. information to the board and to begin drafting some covenants and restrictions, so they could begin a conversation ahead of an eventual public hearing.

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