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Uncertain future for Southold Farm + Cellar after latest blow

03/24/2016 6:00 AM |

Southold Farm + Cellar

Regan Meador feels singled out.

From the moment he and his wife, Carey, opened Southold Farm + Cellar on their Old North Road property in 2014, the couple has focused on producing the most delicious wine they can. Before pumping their life savings into the venture, Mr. Meador met with Southold Town’s planning and building departments to research how other wineries had launched their businesses.

But as he attempted to secure town approvals for his winery, the couple’s dream quickly turned into a zoning nightmare that has now culminated in a controversial decision that effectively closes a business in one of the North Fork’s most visible — and successful — industries.

Last Thursday, the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously to deny Southold Farm + Cellar’s request for a variance to construct a tasting room and winery building on their nearly 24-acre property, casting doubt on its future.

The ruling also raises serious concerns for other small agricultural operations that hope to process their products on-site. In a town with a rich agricultural tradition and many working farms, the ZBA’s action is “completely contrary to promoting agriculture,” said Patricia Moore, the Meadors’ attorney.

In 1992, the development rights on the Meadors’ property were sold to Southold Town. According to the ZBA’s decision, that portion of the land can be used only for “agricultural production defined as the growing of crops” and is “prohibited from being utilized for ‘processing or retail merchandising.’ ”

According to town code, the Agricultural Conservation zone in which the property is located allows vineyard farming with certain regulations. However, the ZBA decision noted several quality-of-life concerns related to the variance request, including the potential for increased traffic and noise. While the couple may continue to grow grapes on their land, the board suggested they produce their wine off-site and find a different tasting room location.

In May 2015, the town Planning Board also expressed a lack of support for the Meadors’ application, citing “serious concerns over the long-range effects of allowing retail wineries on parcels with no room for more than a few parking spaces.”

In an interview this week, Ms. Moore said she provided the ZBA, on the Meadors’ behalf, with “numerous examples that have been in identical situations over the past 15 years to the present.” She has argued during public hearings that several other properties have received town approval for similar projects. Among her most recent examples was 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue, which processes cheese on the same parcel of land where there is a dwelling.

“We can’t have agriculture fields and then not allow the production,” Ms. Moore said.

ZBA members Gerard Goehringer, Eric Dantes and Ken Schneider didn’t return messages seeking comment about why they voted against the Meadors’ request for variances. Member George Horning, a Fishers Island resident who participated in last week’s meeting via Skype, also declined comment.

According to a clerk in the ZBA office, ZBA members are advised against discussing their decisions for 30 days, because state law allows applicants that time to file an appeal. Whether the Meadors will take that option is unclear.

Although the Meadors had agreed previously to several concessions — including barring limousines from the site and not hosting special events or weddings — officials ultimately determined that their business simply isn’t permitted on that property.

Since only growing can take place on the vast majority of their property, the extent of lot coverage that would result from the Meadors’ building plans was also a concern for the ZBA.

“What we really have to weigh is that the conditions really can’t compensate for the grossly undersized substantial variance,” ZBA chair Leslie Kanes Weisman said moments before the vote. “It doesn’t matter if [the winery] is quiet. You still have the 71 percent variance that would set an absolutely unheard of precedent that could really have unintended consequences throughout the town.”

According to the ZBA’s decision, which was released to the public Tuesday, the Meadors could transport their grapes to a wine processing facility or establish an off-site tasting room in order to continue production. But those suggestions don’t sit well with Mr. Meador.

“It’s just like how any chef would want their own kitchen,” he said. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, but you can do things your own way with your own facility, and we like to do things differently.”

In fact, an online fundraising campaign, which raised nearly $25,000 to help launch Southold Farm + Cellar, centered on the premise that the winery would bring “weird grapes to the North Fork.”

The future of Southold Farm + Cellar has been in doubt since July, when it closed its tasting room at the request of the town’s building department. At the time, Michael Verity, Southold’s chief building inspector, said the business was operating with only a certificate of occupancy for a single-family dwelling.

“They should never have been open,” Mr. Verity said last summer.

Not long after it voluntarily ceased operations, the Meadors reopened Southold Farm + Cellar’s tasting room on weekends. Late last year, the winery filed an appeal seeking the variance that was denied last week.

Ms. Moore said she believes the Town Board should clarify its zoning codes so that they’re “black and white” instead of subject to interpretation.

During the same meeting at which the Meadors’ application was denied, the board approved a variance request from a different winery.

Anthony and Lisa Sannino, who own Sannino Bella Vita on Route 48 and Alvah’s Lane in Cutchogue, were granted a variance to build and operate a winery tasting room. They were granted 11.7 percent relief from the town code; in comparison, Southold Farm + Cellar had sought 71 percent relief.

Mr. Schneider of the ZBA, who owns Really Good Fruit Spreads in Cutchogue, recused himself on the Sanninos’ application without providing a reason. The variance was required because the Sanninos weren’t able to obtain an additional 1.17 acres needed to conform to the required 10-acre minimum, Ms. Weisman said.

“The applicant really can’t achieve his desired goal without an area variance because he tried and simply was unsuccessful,” she said.

Mr. Meador said that while he’s happy Sannino Bella Vita received approvals, he believes the town “singled out” Southold Farm + Cellar.

“It definitely feels like we were made an example of,” he said.

While reaction in the local wine industry has been fairly muted, Amy Zavatto, president of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, said she was “saddened and concerned” about the decision because she believes it hinders the industry’s potential growth.

“We don’t want to discourage producers like [the Meadors] because they are our future,” she said.

Ms. Zavatto said she respects the amount of time and consideration the town has put into its review and believes it “might be time to take a closer look at the current codes.”

Other wine industry leaders The Suffolk Times contacted for reaction to the ZBA ruling, including Long Island Wine Council president Roman Roth, said they couldn’t comment about the decision because they weren’t aware of the specifics.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who also declined comment on the decision, said he believes the town should look into identifying specific locations for distilleries, breweries and wineries as opposed to changing zoning codes.

“The code is there for a reason — if you start changing the code so much that it changes for every circumstance, it undermines the reason to have one,” Mr. Russell said. “Although New York State says any bona fide ag operation should be able to open up a distillery, brewery or winery on their land, I don’t agree with that view and think the town needs to start establishing areas where they should or shouldn’t be — just like any other use in the town code.”

Mr. Russell added that he believes now is a good time for the town to evaluate all of its land use goals — including the retail component to agriculture — as it drafts the land use chapter of its comprehensive plan.

“I believe it needs to be looked at sooner rather than later,” he said.

Last Thursday’s decision isn’t the only challenge confronting the Meadors.

Earlier this month, their business plans hit another potential snag when the New York State Liquor Authority sent the couple a “notice of pleading” announcing a hearing to potentially revoke or cancel their existing liquor license. In the notice, SLA officials accuse the couple of making false statements or submitting “suppressed” information in their application. Specifically, the notice alleges that the Meadors claimed in their application that they already had both a permit for a tasting room and site plan approval for a winery building.

The SLA hearing is scheduled for Monday, April 4.

The Meadors, who have two young children and live on the Southold Farm + Cellar property, are now in the process of figuring out what to do next.

While Ms. Meador’s human resources job helps with expenses, Mr. Meador said all options on how to proceed are now on the table.

When asked if selling their property is one of those options, he replied, “Everything has to be considered.”

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Photo: (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to someone as a spokesperson with the Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA does not have a spokesperson.

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