A farm, or something else?

The NOFO Rock and Folk Festival is history, coming and going without the dire consequences many inside Town Hall and elsewhere so urgently feared. Traffic was about what you’d expect for a summer weekend, maybe lighter. Parking? Contained on site. Noise complaints? None that we’ve heard.

It’s too soon to tell whether the Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue will host NOFO II next summer, but it seems a safe bet that the town’s approach to such special events will change. We hope that’s the case.

Only hours before the first act took the stage, a state Supreme Court justice agreed with the show’s promoters that the Town Board lacked the statutory authority to amend the permit previously granted by Southold’s Zoning Board of Appeals. The Town Board attempted to add 21 new conditions to the permit, including limiting on-site parking, shortening the show by an hour and charging the promoters about $6,500 for police overtime. The show itself was never in jeopardy.

The Town Board attempted to inject itself into the review process after concluding that the promoters failed to point out that the show, which included three big-name recording artists who performed at the original Woodstock concert in 1969, was far more than just another weekend winery concert. Supervisor Scott Russell said the application “contained so many misrepresentations that it is almost fraudulent.”

So why weren’t all the details worked out in advance? The problem, as Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Spinner pointed out in his decision, lies in the town code.

It’s true that the permit came out of the ZBA office, but the zoning board as a body never saw it. All that’s needed to secure a winery special event permit is the ZBA chair’s signature. In this case, the only person in town government responsible for reviewing plans for what concert promoter Josh Horton described as “a great cultural music event” was a part-time appointed official whose workload usually involves nothing more pressing than the size of new deck or whether a garage is too close to the neighbor’s yard.

The special events review procedure may have made sense 10 years ago, but as the NOFO festival fight clearly illustrates, wineries now offer far more than a single singer strumming a guitar plugged into a portable amp.

Perhaps the NOFO show will indeed evolve into a “great cultural music event,” but clearly the town’s regulatory approach must evolve as well. It won’t be a quiet or peaceful conversation, but the folks in Town Hall need to address the question of what types of gatherings are appropriate for agricultural lands. No one expects the town to ban events such as the NOFO concert, nor should it. But if a winery has become nothing more than, say, a catering hall or wedding destination, shouldn’t the property be taxed as such?

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