When the Southold Zoning Board of Appeals took up winery regulations during a special public hearing Thursday night the discussion wasn’t intended to focus on issued at Vineyard 48.
But that’s what happened.
At the request of the Planning board, the ZBA was asked to evaluate existing codes that define what constitutes a winery.
Specifically, the board was asked to determine if the use of a tasting room as a “dance and, or social club” was permissible and if a retail cigar shop was an acceptable accessory shop at a vineyard, Planing Board chair Leslie Weisman said.
Both elements have become a common practice Vineyard 48.
The Cutchogue vineyard’s business practices have prompted investigations by both the town and the State Liquor Authority following a host of complaints, including loud music and patrons allegedly wandering onto neighboring properties and having sex in public.
Admittedly, Ms. Weisman said the hearing was prompted by Vineyard 48’s latest site change proposal.
The revised plan includes a new layout for the existing parking area along with the creation of an overflow lot with 100 additional spaces. Additionally, it calls for the construction of a 40-by-100-foot outdoor pavilion with two walls. The pavilion is designed as a permanent structure that would replace the temporary tents, which town officials have said are being used without permits.
But Ms. Weisman insisted the Planning Board’s request for clarification on the current town code did not specifically pertain to the controversial vineyard.
“The Planning Board is prohibited from approving a site plan that is not permitted by code,” she said. “We are not going to revisit [Vineyard 48 concerns.] This isn’t about Vineyard 48. We are here to look at the bigger picture. We are not here to write legislation, we are here to interpret code.”
Still, commenters on both sides of the Vineyard 48 aisle couldn’t get by the elephant in the room.
“I respectfully disagree with the idea that this is ‘town-wide’,” Vineyard 48 attorney Patricia Moore said. “You can’t separate the two.”
During previous public hearings regarding the amended site plan, Ms. Moore called the town a “bully” for making an example out of Vineyard 48.
Attorney William Moore, Ms. Moore’s husband who also represents Vineyard 48, echoed that sentiment during Thursday’s hearing.
“It’s not a genuine request; it’s a loaded question,” he said. “The planning board laid out the questions for you. What it did in its request was make characterizations [of Vineyard 48] that you are saying are facts. This is an ad hoc way of going about this and it’s not the way it should be done.”
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell has previously said it’s “no secret” the town disapproves of Vineyard 48’s business practices and attempted several times to tame the winery’s operation with legislation.
This summer the town passed a special events law to give the town more control over events held at wineries — most notably at Vineyard 48. A few weeks later the town swiftly passed a parking ban on the North Road near Vineyard 48.
But the legislation has done little to curb the the vineyard’s practices, Horseshoe Lane resident Bill Shipman said.
“It’s been years of torment and town government doesn’t have a set plan,” Mr. Shipman said. “We haven’t been given information and we’re wondering where justice is.”
While Vineyard 48 is in litigation with the State Liquor Authority, it is permitted to remain open — even with an expired liquor license.
As the legal battles remain at a standstill, neighbors of the Cutchogue winery wait in the balance.
They argued Thursday that wineries that operate like Vineyard 48 are not true to the town’s current regulations that wineries should primarily sell products made from grapes grown on site and have a minimum of 10 acres dedicated to vineyards or other agricultural purposes.
“That is not agriculture,” said Laurie Helinski, who lives in the home closest to the vineyard and claims the business is lowering property values. “They’re not there tasting wine, they’re drunk. More wineries are going to be forced to have business practices like this because it’s a cash cow.
“The reputation in Southold is becoming a party town. Families like us are leaving in droves,” she continued. “A dance party is not agriculture. There are a lot of tobacco farms in Virginia. There isn’t one here. A cigar shop is not local agriculture.”
After two hours of discussion, the ZBA closed the hearing without making a decision.
“The majority of vineyards are in favor of an operation that are more family orientated and groups of people that are there to enjoy the winery, the sun and the grapes,” said ZBA member Gerard Goehringer. “Those are the areas I am going to focus on when I make my decision.”