Southold Town is preparing to once again take legal action against controversial Cutchogue winery Vineyard 48, with Supervisor Scott Russell accusing the business of breaking an agreement over alleged violations and promising to bring the “full legal might” of the town down on the operation.
“Businesses that operate with complete arrogance and have no respect for the law, or of the community, have no place in Southold,” Mr. Russell said in a statement after the meeting. “I want to see this town commit all of the resources it needs to take any legal action available to ensure that they no longer have the privilege of doing business in this town.”
Mr. Russell said the town had tried to work with Vineyard 48 to come up with a resolution to numerous alleged violations at the winery, some of which date back to 2012, and it seemed to be working. A code enforcement officer was sent to the winery each weekend and reported no serious violations, he said.
But outspoken neighbor Bill Shipman of Horseshoe Lane had reported numerous times that the vineyard was overcrowded and was running an illegal cigar shop on its property, in violation of the town’s codes.
Town Board members had previously told Mr. Shipman that the vineyard’s owners had agreed to shut down the cigar shop. But according to town officials, the cigar shop was reopened on a recent weekend when the code enforcement officer wasn’t working.
That violation was the last straw, Mr. Russell said in an interview after the meeting. The town is no longer willing to negotiate.
“We thought we had at least reasonable resolution and … I think we’ve had a great deal of success, but when the one weekend a code enforcement officer takes off, they start selling cigars? It’s over. No more discussion.”
An attorney representing Vineyard 48 could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday night after the Town Board’s meeting.
The long-running controversy over Vineyard 48 included early allegations of loud music, people urinating on neighbor’s properties, and even cases of people having sex outdoors nearby. In 2013, the State Liquor Authority revoked the vineyard’s license, but that decision was suspended by a state Supreme Court judge after Vineyard 48 argued the revocation was a “draconian” abuse of power.
Legal representatives for Vineyard 48 argued that there was no strict definition of a “farm winery license” or “wine tasting” so the SLA didn’t have the authority to charge them with violations relating to loud music or dancing.
A year later, the revocation was overturned completely on appeal. However, the vineyard’s legal troubles weren’t over. In April of this year, the vineyard was shut down for three weeks and fined $10,000 as part of a SLA ruling concerning complaints by neighbors and local police.
The winery was reopened on April 26. Critics of the winery called the penalty a “slap on the wrist.” Mr. Shipman, in particular, has appeared at numerous Town Board meetings and has warned of future tragedies like the deadly limo crash last summer that killed four passengers.
That July crash involved a limousine leaving Vineyard 48 and making a U-turn at the intersection of Depot Lane. The driver of the limousine has since been charged with criminally negligent homicide, though the vineyard itself was not criminally liable for the crash.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Shipman said he had warned the Town Board that Vineyard 48 wouldn’t follow the rules, and called the state’s authorities corrupt.
In an interview after the meeting, Mr. Russell said activities at the winery had been scaled down in recent years thanks to an agreement reached between the owners and the town.
Mr. Russell said the town was doing what it would for all other businesses: seeking compliance first before suing. The town had also been hesitant to pursue legal action because state agriculture and markets law could have been used against local authorities to set a precedent, Mr. Russell said. He citied, as an example, the failures of the SLA to reign in Vineyard 48 in 2013.
“You never know where [the judges] are going to come down,” he said.
But the recent alleged violation after years of negotiations has hardened the town’s position, with Mr. Russell saying any deal between Vineyard 48 and the town “wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.”
“It’s a waste of time talking to them,” Mr. Russell said at Tuesday night’s Town Board meeting. “We’re going back to full battle now … We’re done talking to them.”
Mr. Russell said the Town Board will pursue whatever legal action it can, including exploring “if an operation has any business operating in Southold if they’re can’t follow the basic rules.”
The town is not worried about losing now, he added.
“If we lose, let some judge give it to them,” he said. “We’re not.”
Mr. Russell also warned the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets not to defend Vineyard 48’s actions.
“If New York Ag and Markets wants to try to support this operation and impose its will on this community then let them come down here, stand in front of the place and tell us all that this is what the future of agriculture should be,” Mr. Russell said in a statement. “If they aren’t willing to do that then they should stay out of this fight.”