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The little village that wouldn't <br> East Aurora has maintained its quaint ambience by telling big-box stores to stay out of town -- and making it stick

Wal-Mart went up against East Aurora twice and lost both times.

Wegmans wanted to give the community its best. The village helped give it the boot.

And this summer, village leaders drove out restaurant drive-throughs.

Is it any wonder that East Aurora is the community where developers fear to tread?

East Aurora's get-tough stance on development, its vigorous and successful opposition to keeping out "big box retailers" like Wal-Mart and a healthy sense of community are key factors in retaining its atmosphere of a bygone era boasting small-town charm and a vibrant business district.

Some see this approach as an impediment to progress. But village officials and community leaders look around at the cookie-cutter developments in nearby communities and hear of the traffic problems in places like Williamsville and Hamburg that make for hazardous driving and walking conditions and say: If that's progress, you can have it.

"Old-time Main Street is what people are striving for. It's the new way," Village Trustee Libby Weberg said. "It's coming back around. A lot of communities have to reverse what they've done -- suburban-style, auto-driven development."

The community's latest move was daring and controversial: banning new restaurant drive-throughs along Main Street.

At a time when some restaurant chains are erecting new buildings specifically because they want a drive-through, East Aurora's decision might seem shortsighted.

"How can you eliminate drive-throughs, at a time when people utilize them and they're a normal part of a lot of business plans?" asked Gary Grote, executive director of the Greater East Aurora Chamber of Commerce.

The ban's chief proponent, Trustee Elizabeth Cheteny, makes no apologies.

"We can be a model for other communities," said Cheteny, a preservationist and professional planner on the staff at the University at Buffalo.

"All too often, developers want to impose faceless, nameless architecture anywhere," she said. "They hit a wall here. We don't want to be anywhere; we want to be East Aurora."

Talk of the drive-through restriction sparked immediate results, even before the Village Board enacted it. Starbucks Coffee and Dunkin' Donuts revised their plans, eliminating drive-throughs after the village initially rejected their proposals.

Some merchants think it was a wise move to clamp down on drive-throughs.

"Drive-throughs bring additional cars and break up foot traffic. We need to keep a walkable community," said Lisa Hoffman, owner of KidBiz, a children's boutique. "Once we start to lose that, it would kill all these businesses. People would not park their cars and walk through small shops."

While stances such as the drive-through ban are considered rigid by some, others say it hardly rolls out the welcome mat for developers.

"Many businesses won't even come into East Aurora because they know what they're up against," said Aurora Building Inspector Patrick Blizniak, citing a pullout in 1997 by Wegmans and others.

A fine line

For years, East Aurora has straddled a fine line between controlled growth and a desire for new business. It has made the community the envy of others that many times have struggled to define their niche against big-time development.

Working in East Aurora's favor, is its location.

As the hub for five surrounding rural communities, East Aurora is like the big city to some and has been for years -- further fueling longtime support for the mom-and-pop stores.

Equally important, it is far enough away from retail giants and suburban malls that many don't want to drive that far and prefer to shop right in their own back yard.

"I hope there's always the mom-and-pop stores and little shops," said Linda Coletti, manager of Toy Loft, a specialty toy store on upper Main. "There's something for everybody. It would be sad if none of this exists across the country. Every place would look the same."

East Aurora also has benefited from watching what has gone on elsewhere.

"Our location helps us because when the Cheektowagas, West Senecas and Lancasters were being bombarded with development and had no citizens groups yet, we were this sleepy little town that was left alone for a really long time," said Ellen Moomaw, a member of East Aurora's Citizens Coalition.

Ed Vidler, president of the family's 75-year-old five-and-dime store on upper Main, has long likened the village to Brigadoon.

"It's one of the few towns that's always been self-supporting," said Vidler, 77, pointing to its horse-racing heritage, the famed Roycroft campus and Fisher-Price's roots.

Vidler says reasonable growth is important.

"Had Wal-Mart come in, East Aurora wouldn't be what it is today," he said. "I think the concern now is urban sprawl and keeping business right in the core."

Citizens are active

East Aurora also stands out, many say, because of how active its citizens are in community issues and government. Plus, the weekly farmers' market, a slew of annual events and festivals bolster community spirit. There are even wooden garbage bins, with hand-carved Roycroft sayings, that line Main Street.

"A lot of communities don't have those things," Cheteny said. "It's a step back in time, and it's working."

Still, government officials and citizens groups remain vigilant about what developers want to do in the community.

"I don't think it's a matter of development or no development, but development that's shaped for the community," Cheteny said. "A village's character erodes slowly, and you don't realize it right away. It's rarely one project. It's a series of small decisions -- a gradual erosion of what makes a place special."

Last year, Aurora town leaders capped the maximum size of any new retail/commercial buildings at 55,000 square feet, though it only applies in the town. The Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth spurred the town to consider the restriction after leading a fight five years ago against a $12 million Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for Olean Road and renewed talk in the past few years of Wal-Mart's looking to expand its presence in the Southtowns.

Village officials never adopted a parallel measure, though they now are working on a set of design guidelines for commercial development while refining the village code to eliminate ambiguities so that developers know what the village is looking for when they make proposals.

"A healthy mix of retail is good. A number of chains shows a strong market, but I wouldn't want to see them dominate," Cheteny said. "Why shouldn't we set some ground rules for development and set standards for what we want?"

Moomaw says its important that the community stick together. "Keeping everything small and slower-moving, keeps all of us villagers together more -- feeling like a family," she said. "We all love this place and can sit on our front porches and watch it go by and appreciate it. It does kind of have that timelessness."

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com

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