A quiet summer Sunday drive on the North Fork of Long Island — zipping past farm stands and rows of vines — may be a thing of the past. Thanks to an increase of tourism, the area is certainly changing and shows no sign of slowing down, longtime business owners and residents say.
And according to data from Southold Town, tourists are being drawn to the area for more special events than ever before. That means more festivals, more wine tastings, more fundraisers and especially more weddings.
All of that means more cars on the North Fork’s two major roads: Routes 25 and 48. And local business owners say the best — or, depending on how you feel about traffic, the worst — is yet to come.
“It really kicked off about 10 years ago and just steadily progressed,” said George Regini Jr., owner of Giorgio’s in Baiting Hollow, a wedding and banquet venue. “Let me tell you, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The number of special event permits issued by Southold Town has boomed as the North Fork’s popularity has increased, according to town officials and online data.
The permits are required when local businesses want to hold events that would require closing off local roads or that exceed available parking; smaller events don’t require a permit.
According to a Suffolk Times review of online data from the past decade, special permits issued through the Zoning Board of Appeals have skyrocketed, especially in the last year. In 2005, 13 permits were issued. In 2008, just three applications were approved, the data shows.
Last year, however, 39 permits were issued, according to online records.
The spike in special events may be partially explained by a recent law that clarifies the types of events that require permits, said Zoning Board of Appeals chairwoman Leslie Weisman — meaning events that otherwise would have been off the books are now being reviewed.
But the law may also be disguising an even bigger trend. Under the legislation, applicants can include up to six similar events on one permit, Ms. Weisman said.
“Look, if it’s the same event,” she said, “and we’re only really reviewing the event once, the type of event, the scale of event, the parking … it would be fine to charge one fee.”
She said the legislation saves applicants money by allowing them to bundle events instead of requiring separate permits with separate fees.
Ms. Weisman admits the fees aren’t a money-maker for the town; she said they barely cover the costs of the department’s employees, two full-time and one part-time. The permits, she added, are meant to make sure residents are safe during the events.
“You’re getting a lot for your money,” she said. “We have more business activities, we have more entrepreneurs, and [the town] supports those activities.”
Since last year, several events — like weddings — could be included into one permit. That’s what makes comparing permit approvals year-over-year tricky.
For example, 11 wedding-related permits were issued in 2014, compared to eight in 2005. But the actual number of weddings approved last year was much higher.
According to an online log of special permits, 34 weddings were tucked into those 11 permits. That jump more closely aligns with a trend local vineyards and wedding venues have been cashing in on for years.
“The North Fork has gained tremendous attention,” said Kelsey Cheslock, marketing manager at Sparkling Pointe winery in Southold. In 2014, Sparkling Pointe received two special events permits for eight weddings.
The rural feel is what draws brides and grooms from farther west, Ms. Cheslock said.
“We offer a different kind of location and ambiance than any other place on Long Island,” she said. “People come out here and they’re like, ‘Oh my god! Trees! Grass!’ ”