THOSE DEADLY TROUBLEMAKERS Irene and Lee spawned an impressive stream along Route 66 in Ghent where Price Chopper plans to build its new supermarket. What’s normally a stripe of thick marsh grass rapidly lived up to its name as a wetland as the storms came through. The stream wasn’t as dramatic as the moat around a nearby bank branch. But it made me wonder what it will cost Price Chopper to avoid the need for life rafts in its new parking lot.
The Planning Boards of the Town of Ghent and the Village of Chatham, along with the state Department of Environmental Conservation are charged with anticipating the types of disasters that might happen if developers don’t take prudent steps to avoid foreseeable problems. Some people call that burdensome regulation. On the other hand, I’ll feel better when the company installs systems to prevent a future deluge from severing the main highway to Hudson, isolating the new Camphill retirement community or sending me scrambling to the second floor of our office in the downtown hamlet of Ghent.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how we can’t afford all the regulations we have because they kill job growth and stifle our entrepreneurial spirit. But so far, Price Chopper hasn’t been deterred by the technical challenges of its new site. If shoppers can’t get to the market, why build one?
And in New Lebanon, where the Hannaford supermarket chain was planning to build a new market, the company gamely forged ahead with its plans, putting up with nutty behavior by state Department of Transportation officials who insisted on knowing how many angels would fit on the edge of a curb cut.
But then, without warning, Hannaford pulled the plug this week on its New Lebanon project. Even before the official announcement had been released, word of the decision leaked, and Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R-108th), whose district includes New Lebanon, issued a press release roundly condemning the state, saying the company had been “scared away by New York’s high taxes, job-killing regulations and overall hostility to business.”
All of that might be true, but it’s not how Hannaford explains its withdrawal. A company spokesman said it was strictly a business decision. As it moved through the permitting process executives got cold feet about the return the company would earn on its investment in New Lebanon. As if to underscore its position that the problem is with the economics of the site not the state of New York in general, the company says that it does plan to build a new supermarket in the Town of Livingston. It seems unlikely that state regulations are applied differently in Livingston than they are in New Lebanon.
Hannaford’s plan for the New Lebanon market seemed ideally suited for the community — a scaled down version of its larger stores, like the one in Valatie, complete with a pharmacy in a building designed to reduce energy consumption. It’s a harsh setback for the community, which has not had a real market for two years. It prolongs the burden on local consumers, who have been forced to drive long distances to buy food and other necessities since the last local market closed two years ago.
There are other progressive supermarket companies, and maybe now that Hannaford has laid the groundwork for a new building , another firm will seize the opportunity; certainly it would make sense for the business community and all levels of government to approach other companies about opening a store in what amounts to a shovel-ready site.
If New Lebanon’s loss of a new market holds any lesson for local officials in Ghent, Chatham and other places looking at development, it’s probably that business decisions depend a lot more on the state of the economy than the impact of regulation. Sure, some regulations go too far – not long ago this state considered spilled milk as big a threat to the environment as spilled oil. And regulators at all levels have to exercise common sense and restraint. But we’ve asked for most of the regulations we have. We want to protect things like our health and the environment we leave to our children, and we expect government agencies at all levels will apply the rules fairly.
When the economy is strong, business grows regardless of regulations. When the economy is weak, it isn’t rules that make companies shy away from expanding; it’s the absence of money in consumers’ pockets.