One of the world’s biggest companies and a Boston suburb are squaring off in a lawsuit that could have broad implications for a booming business: getting stuff to your front door fast.
Amazon has sued the Town of Braintree over a requirement that delivery vehicles going to and from a warehouse that Amazon plans to build must carry signs identifying them as such.
It’s a condition that Braintree’s Planning Board attached last summer to zoning approval for the 250,000-square-foot facility. Local officials say the signs will allow them to make sure drivers — who will be contractors, not Amazon employees — comply with a traffic-management plan they hashed out with the online retailer.
At the time, Amazon’s attorney said the sign requirement “makes sense,” according to a video recording of a meeting. But the company later sued, saying the signage rules, along with requirements for extra driver safety checks and insurance, were “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal.”
But many Braintree residents objected, citing the impact of hundreds of cars and trucks an hour traveling along already busy Granite Avenue to and from Route 128. After several contentious public hearings last year, the Planning Board approved the facility, but with conditions.
“If they’re driving through neighborhoods and speeding, I know Amazon wants to know. But how do people know to call Amazon?” the Planning Board’s chairman, Bob Harnais, said at a hearing in July. “Drivers should have some sort of signage on their car.”
In its lawsuit, Amazon said the conditions amount to “burdensome requirements that are not applied to others operating similar businesses in the Town of Braintree.” A spokeswoman did not respond to messages seeking further comment.
Both Mayor Joseph Sullivan and a town attorney declined to discuss the case, though the town said in court filings that the Planning Board gave Amazon’s position “careful consideration” before voting on the rules.
A hearing scheduled for earlier this month was postponed while the two sides “continue to pursue the possibility of a settlement,” according to court filings. Meanwhile, Braintree is contending with a separate lawsuit from other property owners near the warehouse, who are challenging the rezoning for Amazon.
No matter the outcome, the signage dispute has implications for Amazon and other businesses that increasingly rely on contract drivers who use their own vehicles to take packages from warehouses to customers’ doors. They are paid an hourly rate, with no benefits or expense reimbursements.
Since 2016, Massachusetts state law has required drivers for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to have identifying decals on their cars. But there is no such requirement for independent delivery drivers, who have proliferated not just through Amazon’s Flex contract delivery service — last year, it reportedly had about 8,000 drivers in Massachusetts — but also with food-delivery apps such as DoorDash and Grubhub.
While more traditional delivery services, like those offered by pizza shops, often use signs to advertise, identifying markings are usually not required. That raises legal questions about Braintree’s approach, said Bruce Schaller, a New York City transportation consultant who studies ride-hailing and other app-based services.
“The question for Braintree is why pick on Amazon?” he said. “If a town said to do business in our town we want you to be identifiable, then Amazon signs would fit into an overall scheme. But that’s not what they’re doing.”
Town officials, however, note that unlike pizza shops and other small businesses, Amazon’s warehouse needed major zoning changes to operate. That, they say, gives the town leverage to address concerns such as traffic and safety.
It’s the sort of dispute Amazon and other fast-delivery services should expect as they open more warehouses in thickly settled neighborhoods, said Peter Plumeau, the chief executive of EDR Group, an economic development consulting firm in Boston.
“The demand for rapid delivery and the need for warehouse space is really driving this,” he said. “If Amazon and other e-commerce companies continue to seek out spots for distribution centers closer and closer to urban customers, I think these kind of challenges will keep coming up.”
How the disputes are resolved will also affect the way tech companies like Amazon ship packages to their customers in the future, said Robin Chase, a transportation entrepreneur and Zipcar cofounder.
If you think it can be hard to know who’s double-parking on your block to deliver packages now, she said, wait until robots are making deliveries.
“Imagine when we’ve got drone delivery, or commercial drones flying around,” Chase said. “If they’re not marked, I can’t tell who that belongs to. Who do I yell at?”