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Town Board members wary of proposed winery moratorium


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 an 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.”

This week, however, a majority of Town Board members said they weren’t inclined to support such a proposal at this time.

“Moratoriums hurt people,” Councilman Bill Ruland said at Tuesday night’s Town Board meeting. “It just takes too many people and businesses and plans with it.”

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. These efforts would address 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.”

Southold Town currently has more than 20 producers with tasting room operations, and at least two more are currently proposed. Greenport Harbor Brewing Co., which has tasting rooms in Greenport Village and Peconic, is the only brewery currently operating in town. At least two more beer companies, however, have submitted proposals within the past year — including one seeking to create a tasting room in Mattituck. There are no standalone distilleries currently operating in town, but one has been proposed for Greenport.

Mr. Russell said the existing code lacks definitions for tasting rooms, breweries and distilleries.

“The problem is, if it’s not in the code, it’s presumed not to be allowed,” he said.

The supervisor also believes the code needs to address agricultural retail uses such as the sale of wine or beer at farm stands, adding that the current zoning doesn’t specify where certain modern business models would be allowed.

Concerns over quality of life, traffic and police enforcement should also be acknowledged, he said. Additionally, the town’s special events rules could be changed to better match the “intention” of the original law, which Mr. Russell said was written to encourage businesses to promote or sell their locally made products.

An approved moratorium, he said, would give the Town Board ample time to tackle all these issues at once.

“It’s so global and it’s so comprehensive that any changes that come up should come up as one document. The problem is this one-at-a-time, this paste-and-glue approach, hasn’t served the code well over the years,” he said. “I think everyone has a right to see where we’re going from a global perspective.”

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 and the Long Island Farm Bureau 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 the 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].”

Ms. Tuthill said that while the industry’s reputation has expanded, 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 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 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.”

Speaking as a Riverhead Town business owner, 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.”

At its Tuesday meeting, the Southold Town Board agreed to create a “working group” to investigate possible changes to the town code for wineries, breweries and distilleries.

But the proposal for a moratorium didn’t garner much support from board members, most of whom said they believed code changes could be made without placing a ban on new wineries, breweries and distilleries. Mr. Ruland said a moratorium should be a “last resort.”

“There are a lot of issues, but in my mind, they’re rather narrowly defined,” he said. “It’s not really like it’s global issues that we’re wrapping our arms around.”

Councilwoman Jill Doherty agreed, saying she thinks the board can address problems in the code without banning new businesses. Councilman James Dinizio took a more direct approach.

“I don’t know what would make me vote for a moratorium,” Mr. Dinizio said. “We’re trying to micromanage our zones way too much. It doesn’t allow for innovation.”

Mr. Russell responded that he believes the code hasn’t been managed enough, leading to the missing definitions and lack of clarity he now feels need to be fixed.

Town Board member Robert Ghosio said he thinks the code is worth revising for “quality of life issues alone,” but was hesitant to endorse a moratorium. He said he didn’t want businesses that had already submitted applications to be affected.

That concern was also voiced by representatives for two separate pending applications in Southold Town: a proposed brewery in Cutchogue and a tasting room in Southold.

David Shanks, owner of Surrey Lane Vineyard Orchard Farm in Southold, purchased his vineyard in 2011. His application to build a 3,610-square-foot winery including a tasting room is still pending with the Planning Board; he had planned to break ground on the project this spring.

When reached for comment about the supervisor’s announcement, Mr. Shanks described the news as somewhat of a shock.

“I would hope the applicant that has already been following the process will be allowed to finish,” he said. “I want to be a good citizen and I also have a business. I hope it won’t be constrained.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Greg Doroski, a Mattituck native and co-owner of Threes Brewing, said he was also concerned talk of a moratorium would hurt his project.

Threes Brewing, a Brooklyn-based brewery owned in part by Mr. Doroski, seeks to lease a steel building that has been proposed for the production of beer in the industrial park on Cox Lane in Cutchogue.

The site plan application includes the construction of a 6,500-square-foot building for production, office space and storage, according to town documents. The site wouldn’t feature a retail or tasting component, Mr. Doroski told the Town Board.

The town Planning Board is set to discuss the application at its meeting next week. Mr. Doroski said he fears a moratorium would target his business and stressed that he chose an industrial location in order to conform to the code.

Charles Cuddy, an attorney representing the project, said the applicants had already gone over traffic, lighting and other planning concerns. He added that other principal businesspeople connected to the project said it would be wrong to “move the goalposts” now that the application has come so far.

“It is wrong and unfair to consider a moratorium on this project so far along in the permitting approval process,” said Jim Miller, a longtime Southold businessman.

Mr. Russell said he understood their concerns and that a moratorium could exempt existing applications. Moreover, the proposal would need to be approved by the entire board after a public discussion.

The supervisor stressed that he feels the code changes are necessary and that they wouldn’t automatically limit uses. Using Mr. Doroski’s application as an example, Mr. Russell said the Town Board may want to set rules that would allow breweries in industrial zones to also have retail operations — a practice that currently isn’t allowed under the code.

“Maybe we need to loosen the code to accommodate these [industries],” he said. “But if we’re going to do that, where do we want them? What are the circumstances under which we’re going to allow them to open? It’s a two-way street … What’s going to make you viable?”

The board will now create a list of goals over the next few weeks and meet again later this month with suggestions about which members of the public and winery industry should be in the working group. A representative from the Wine Council said the organization would have time to respond to the board’s stated goals by then.

“I assure you,” Mr. Russell told Mr. Doroski. “In two weeks, we’re going to have a clear understanding, at least for pending applications.”

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Photo caption: Town Supervisor Scott Russell pitches his ideas for changes to the town code while vineyard owners watch on from the audience at Town Hall Tuesday morning. (Credit: Paul Squire)