Supervisor proposing moratorium on new wineries, distilleries

Palmer Vineyards

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell has suggested a temporary moratorium on new winery, brewery and distillery applications, saying the town needs time to revamp the “sparse” codes it has for regulating the industries.

“The fact is we’re getting quite a few operations up and running,” Mr. Russell said in a Friday interview with The Suffolk Times. “As a community, I think we need to take a step back and consider where we’re going to fit them in the town’s planning over the next 20 or 30 years.”

The idea to make sweeping changes to the town’s code was hinted at in the supervisor’s State of the Town address and recently brought up by him during a joint meeting of the Long Island Wine Council and Long Island Farm Bureau.

Mr. Russell said the town’s existing code from the 1970s and ’80s is “very insufficient,” adding that it lacks definitions for tasting rooms and agricultural retail uses.

In addition to revising existing rules, revamping the code would allow the town to add new uses and take a fresh look at land-use requirements in order to better fit the changing industry while lessening negative impacts such as increased traffic, Mr. Russell said.

“It’s a new day, new challenges,” he said. “These operations are great, but they have real impacts that need to be considered in a thoughtful town code.”

Assistant town planner Mark Terry said the planning department could benefit from additional “guidance” to clear up the code.

Mr. Russell stressed that local vineyard owners should be a partner in the discussion and said he has asked the Long Island Wine Council for suggestions about which parts of the code to change.

Ali Tuthill, executive director of the Wine Council, said the joint meeting with Mr. Russell was mostly a question-and-answer session about the idea of code changes and a moratorium. She agreed that winery owners would be “happy to collaborate to find a solution that works for everyone involved.”

“Everyone could benefit from clarity,” she said.

Even so, Ms. Tuthill believes town code could be addressed without placing a moratorium on the industry.

“Essentially, we see winemaking as an extension of agriculture,” she said. “We are trying to do our best to be good community partners, but we really think any modifications that can be done to the town code can be done without putting a hold on [production].”

Scott Russell State of Town
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell delivers his 2015 State of the Town address. (Credit: Grant Parpan, file)

Ms. Tuthill said that while the industry’s reputation has grown, the growth of new town businesses has been “stagnant.”

“In terms of a physical imprint on this region, it’s not as booming as some consider it,” she said.

Ms. Tuthill said the Wine Council will wait to hear the specifics concerning a moratorium before making a final judgment on the idea.

Wine Council president Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, who didn’t attend the joint meeting with Mr. Russell, echoed Ms. Tuthill’s concerns.

“From our point of view, I think we have a viable industry,” Mr. Roth said. “I hope that the town understands and values what we bring to the town and not to undermine that.”

When reached for comment Friday, Long Island Farm Bureau representatives Rob Carpenter and Jessica Hansen said they were concerned about how a proposed moratorium would negatively affect the local agriculture industry. Mr. Carpenter also said the proposal is counterintuitive to the state’s latest efforts to encourage growth in those types of businesses.

“There’s been a lot of support for these types of industries,” he said. “We’re very interested in working with the town to come to some sort of conclusion to this process and want see this move along regardless of what happens because many people have projects in the pipeline.”

The Suffolk Times reached out to local wineries Friday for their reaction to the idea. 

Speaking as a Riverhead Town business owner and not on behalf of the wine council, Jamesport Vineyard president Ron Goerler Jr., a past president of the wine council, said that while he isn’t against Southold Town’s plan, he hopes quality of life concerns — particularly traffic — are addressed in ways that don’t hinder economic growth.

“I see investing in agriculture out here as a positive,” he said, adding that this is the first time he’s heard of a plan to impose such a moratorium. “Agriculture out here needs to survive for the next generation.” 

Mr. Russell said he will be adding a discussion about a potential moratorium and any code changes to Tuesday morning’s Town Board work session agenda.

“The first thing I’m going to do is ask the Town Board to put a small group together to begin sorting through the issues,” he said.

The specifics of a moratorium and which codes would be changed would need to be approved by the entire Town Board. The effects any moratorium would have on existing applications, such as an application for a distillery in Greenport and a proposed brewery facility in Cutchogue, would be subject to the board’s wishes, Mr. Russell said.

“It depends on how wide a net the board would want to cast,” he said. “It could very well exempt any proposed facility that has an application pending or it could include them, along with any other new applications.”

With reporting by Jen Nuzzo.

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