Proposed Centerport 7-Eleven stirs concern

Brian Rathgaber at his auto repair shop in Brian Rathgaber at his auto repair shop in Centerport. (May 15, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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A plan to build a 7-Eleven in place of an auto shop in Centerport is dividing residents, with some raising concerns about increased traffic at the busy intersection and others favoring the convenience store.

Amid the feud, 7-Eleven is suing Huntington Town over new rules for stand-alone convenience stores, saying they will "greatly impact [the company's] ability to construct new free-standing stores," according to court documents.

Brian Rathgaber and Shawn Meaney own the automotive shop at the northeast corner of Little Neck Road and Route 25A. Rathgaber said they want to sell the property because they can no longer afford to stay there and have found a cheaper site for their business about a mile away in Greenlawn.

"Everything was going fine, then the recession hit and business slowed, expenses rose and taxes rose and I got into a bind financially," Rathgaber, of Huntington, said.

Rathgaber's family has owned the business since 1960 in the hamlet, where they ran a gas station for decades. They stopped selling gasoline in 2005 but continued to run it as a repair shop.

Rathgaber and Meaney, of Nesconset, signed a deal with 7-Eleven in May 2010 and the corporation submitted its pre-application to the town the following April. About two months later, the town board approved a code change that imposed new regulations on applications for free-standing convenience stores, which is what 7-Eleven wants to build on the Centerport site.

The new regulations include several requirements, including a special-use permit from the zoning board of appeals and a minimum lot size of 25,000 square feet, according to town documents. Before the changes, 7-Eleven would have been permitted to build a store there without appearing in front of the zoning board of appeals, according to a company statement.

The changes were prompted by a study the town Planning Department conducted of existing convenience stores, looking at traffic, parking and deliveries issues during peak hours, as well as comments by local residents about problems about these stores, according to the town in a statement about four months after the vote. It was unanimously approved by the town board.

7-Eleven filed its lawsuit against the town in October 2011 and it is currently in the "discovery" stage, 7-Eleven said in a statement.

The zoning board of appeals held a May 9 public hearing attended by more than 75 people. At the hearing, lawyer Al Amato, representing 7-Eleven, said the business has the right to build a shopping center there, which wouldn't require a special-use permit. He said that development would call for a 2,940-square-foot 7-Eleven (the same size as the current proposed stand-alone store) and two additional 500-square-foot retail stores, which he called a more "intense" project.

"We are trying to put in the less intense installation," Amato said. Rathgaber said he also prefers that.

About 20 people spoke at the hearing, including Tom Rost of Centerport. "It is just the wrong business to be there," he said, adding he isn't opposed to other businesses, like a real estate office, which would bring less traffic.

Fred Kaeser of Centerport favors the 7-Eleven. He said that when passing one, he never thinks, "Oh, look at the traffic-flow disruption."

The zoning board of appeals has until July 10, or 62 days after the public hearing, to issue a decision.If it approves 7-Eleven's application, the proposal would require approval by the town Planning Board, according to 7-Eleven's statement.

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