A recent decision to shut down a Southold winery appears headed for court.
A notice of claim filed this week by the owners of Southold Farm + Cellar claims the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals acted beyond the scope of its authority last month when it rejected its request for variances to allow the winery to convert an existing accessory structure into a 400-square-foot wine tasting area, and to build a 3,600-square-foot winery building on their property.
“The Zoning Board’s decision is in direct contravention of decades-long Southold Town land use policy and practice which promotes agricultural operations,” the notice of claim states.
The notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, was filed Monday in the Southold Town Clerk’s office.
Farm + Cellar owners Regan and Carey Meador bought their Old North Road property in 2014 with the goal of having a vineyard and winery there.
The property contains a 22.56-acre farm parcel on which the development rights had been sold in 1992, and an adjacent one-acre property along Old North Road that had a single-family farmhouse, which they live in, and an accessory building on it.
They planted grapes on the 22.56 acres, and sought to convert the accessory building on the one-acre property into a 400-square foot retail tasting area, while building a new 3,600-square foot winery building on that same property for processing and storing grapes from their adjacent vineyard.
But the town building department had stated that the certificate of occupancy for the one-acre property was only for a single-family dwelling and not a winery or tasting room.
The town building department on April 9th of last year rejected the proposal for the winery and tasting room and said it needed site plan approval from the town Planning Board, and it needed a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals because the property wasn’t set back from the road by the required distance under town code requirements.
The ZBA then added another condition on its own, claiming that the farmhouse and winery should each require two acres, for a total of four, because they represented two separate uses on the one-acre land, according to the notice of claim.
The Meadors’ notice of claim says the ZBA “sought to direct” the building department to issue a revised notice of disapproval to include that additional condition, and the building department complied, and issued a revised rejection notice on June 19, 2015.
And this was the crux of the lawsuit.
“The Zoning Board acted beyond the scope of its legal authority when it created a minimum lot size criteria for a zoning use district — a legislative act properly within the authority of the Southold Town Board, not the Zoning Board,” the notice of claim states.
“The Zoning Board has proclaimed unilaterally and without legal authority, that a farmhouse and winery now must have double the minimum lot size than is required,” the notice continued.
The Meadors then merged their two properties — the 23.56 acre vineyard and the one acre farmhouse — onto one 24-acre lot in an attempt to address the lot size issue.
But the building department countered on Sept. 10, 2015 by amending its rejection notice to remove the lot size requirement, while retaining the requirements for a site plan approval and a setback variance, according to the notice of claim.
Then on Oct. 27, 2015, the building department issued another revised rejection notice — the fourth in total — and once again required the farmhouse and winery use proposed for the former one-acre lot still required two-acres for each of those two uses.
“The Southold Farm/Meador’s application was being pushed and pulled back and forth among the building department, the zoning board and the Planning Board with conflicting statements about the town’s zoning code provisions,” the notice of claim states.
The Meadors say there is no provision in the Town Code requiring a doubling of lot size for a farmhouse and winery, and that this interpretation of the code had never been done before. They also said in the notice of claim that a Sept. 1, 2015 memorandum from the town Planning Board to the ZBA on the two-acre per use requirements stated “perhaps the Town Code needs to be revised to clarify this point.”
The ZBA — the defendant in the notice of claim — denied the Meador’s application on March 17, 2016.
It allowed the vineyard use to continue at the site but not the wine production and tasting room, which would have to be done off-site.
“The Zoning Board’s decision is based upon a false premise — one of its own making,” the notice of claim states. “There simply is no requirement in the town zoning code requiring the doubling of a lot size when the property will be used as a farmhouse and winery. The Zoning Board has concocted this requirement out of thin air.”
The decision cited the town’s “bulk schedule and parking schedule” in its zoning code as the source of two acre per use requirement.
The Meadors claim it doesn’t say this, and that this zoning interpretation has never been used for any other farmhouse/winery projects in town.
The Notice of Claim says the building department also contradicted itself in the four rejection notices it sent the Meadors. The first and third notice did not include the two-acre per use requirement, while the second and fourth one did.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell declined to comment on the notice of claim, while Town Attorney Bill Duffy, the Meadors, and their attorneys, Bill and Pat Moore, did not return calls seeking comment.