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Tensions flare at public hearings for winery tasting rooms


A pair of applications for new winery tasting rooms and production centers drew some fiery language, including a tense exchange between one of the applicants’ attorney and the Planning Board, as public hearings for the projects continued Monday evening.

Of the two applications — one for Sannino Winery & Tasting Room in Cutchogue and the other for Surrey Lane Vineyard’s planned operation off Main Road in Southold — the Surrey Lane application caused the most tension.

An initial decision by the Planning Board to refer the application to the Zoning Board of Appeals led the vineyard’s attorney to call out the board as being “entirely irrational.”

Planning Department staff had railed against the proposal to build a roughly 3,600-square-foot wine building near the Lower Road intersection in a written statement. The applicants, David and Liz Shanks, had recently proposed adding a wine production area to the building’s basement, which was originally slated for storage, to show their commitment to production on site.

But the department had doubts that the facility would be used to produce wine, claiming the “sudden addition of a wine production is not convincing evidence.”

That incensed the Shanks’ attorney, Eric Bressler of Mattituck, especially after the board nearly moved the application to the Zoning Board of Appeals for their opinion, which would have added months to the application process, without hearing a response.

“With all due respect, I don’t believe there is any rational basis for a referral and there is no basis for the zoning board to make any determination,” he said. “What’s the purpose other than to slow down this application which has the necessary effect of imposing hardship on the applicant?”

Mr. Bressler said the proposed vineyard would be producing on the site, and that the zoning board did not have the authority to determine how much production was needed before the winery could be considered a winery.

Town attorney Bill Duffy interjected that the Shanks’ application’s own representatives had previously stated there would be minimal or no production at all on the site. But Mr. Bressler said the latest plans showed a clear commitment to production and warned they would challenge the Zoning Board of Appeal’s decision if it were ultimately sought.

“We’d like this thing to happen by the next season,” Mr. Bressler said. “We don’t want to lose another year.”

At the public hearing, a representative from the Long Island Farm Bureau and another attorney for the project defended the Shanks’ plans.

Gail Wickham of Mattituck stated the vineyard would be a “small, family-run facility” that is “the type of winery that’s correct for Southold Town.” Likewise, LIFB public policy director Jessica Anson testified the Planning Board should be open to allowing production and tasting rooms “in order for agriculture to survive.”

“It is imperative that we provide them avenues to operate their businesses in profitable ways,” she said.

Pauline Pharr of South Harbor Road said she supported the project, though she had concerns that continued growth in the area could worsen traffic problems. Another neighbor, Carmine Antonelli, agreed that the Shanks were good neighbors, but was concerned about the use of the property as a tasting room — and whether it would later serve as host for events like weddings.

“We’re not buying these people we’re buying the idea of the vineyard and the party and the alcohol,” he said, adding he feared traffic around Lower Road would be affected by buses and limousines trying to turn around.

Ms. Wickham replied that buses and limousines would be able to turn around on the property.

The Planning Board ultimately backed off on its idea to refer the project to the Zoning Board of Appeals, and merely adjourned the public hearing so they could review new information provided by the applicants.

The other application by Anthony Sannino seeks to build a 2,800-square-foot winery on nine acres of land on Alvahs Lane north of Route 48 in Cutchogue. The land is already used for grape growing, but the new facility would include space for “wine production, retail area, [and a] wine education room,” according to the Planning Board’s summary of the project.

During the public hearing, Planning Board chairman Donald Wilcenski said he did have concerns about having an entrance onto Route 48 due to speeding traffic. Mr. Sannino said putting the entrance onto Alvahs Lane would cause too much traffic on the local road.

Mr. Wilcenski later said Mr. Sannino had done a “thorough job” answering the Planning Board’s previous questions about the property.

But a neighbor who spoke during the hearing, Frances Slezak, painted a dire picture of what may come if the winery is approved. She said the winery would cause “disharmony to the area and the devaluation of neighboring homes,” while also claiming a church on Route 48, which is adjacent to the winery property’s southernmost edge, would be affected by the tasting room.

Ms. Slezak — whose home is next to the winery’s driveway — also claimed the vineyard tasting room would lead to shining lights in people’s yards, beeping cars, truck traffic, and the “possible appearance of food trucks.”

Rick Shaper, a former member of the zoning board, stated the project would help keep the property’s open space undeveloped.

Planning Board member and local fire chief and EMT Jim Rich disagreed with Mr. Shaper’s opinion that the winery would be a “low impact” development.

“I’ve been an EMT for 19 years and the amount of times I’ve gone to scrape up drunks from wineries … is remarkable,” Mr. Rich said. “If we’re prostituting ourselves to save open land with alcohol, we really need to take a close look at that.”

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Photo caption: Mattituck attorney Eric Bressler argues against sending his clients’ application for a wine production and tasting center to the Zoning Board of Appeals during a Planning Board meeting Monday night. The Planning Board ultimately backed off on the idea. (Credit: Paul Squire)