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Orient residents denounce Fresh & Co. proposal

Outspoken residents of Orient packed Southold Town Hall Monday night demanding that the Planning Board reject a Manhattan-based restaurant chain’s proposal to build a large barn and raise animals on a tract of farmland adjacent to Narrow River Road.

Speaker after speaker in the standing-room-only crowd criticized the proposal as a danger to Hallocks Bay and the very shallow groundwater in Orient, and said a plan to build a 9,000-square-foot barn on the 34.5-acre site was wholly out of character with the land itself and more suited to “agri-tainment” than agriculture.

When John Holzapfel, a former Orient resident now living in Greenport, denounced the Fresh & Co. proposal for the site, saying the company’s application was filled with falsehoods, the crowd erupted in applause. Mr. Holzapfel then told the board “to vote right now to deny this application.”

Fresh & Co. announced last month it had acquired the Orient farmland to provide “farm-to-desk” dining. The land was previously leased by the company and farmed by Dan Latham, who operates his own enterprise, Latham Farms, nearby.

Before any speaker stepped to the podium, Planning Board chairman Donald Wilcenski, looking out at the packed room, said the board had received a number of letters in opposition to the plan.

He also said the Southold Town Trustees — who are in charge of preserving critical wetlands — had concerns about the proposal and the state Department of Environmental Conservation also wanted to be involved in the review process.

Because of that, he said the hearing on the proposal would be adjourned after the Monday night meeting concluded and would remain that way until planning department staff gathered additional information on the Fresh and Co. proposal.

No one spoke in favor of the proposal or on behalf of Fresh & Co. On Tuesday, a company spokesperson said no one was available for comment.

While Mr. Wilcenski’s announcement was good news to the residents, it did not dim their desire to speak out.

Stepping to the podium, Bob Hanlon, president of the Orient Association, picked apart the Fresh & Co. proposal point by point. Saying the town had purchased development rights on the farm, where there were also deed restrictions on future uses, Mr. Hanlon told the board that the proposal to raise livestock — pigs, goats, sheep and chickens — posed a critical threat to adjacent wetlands.

“There is grave concern in the community that the proposed use could damage those wetlands and waters because of the wastes generated by the livestock operation,” he said. “There is also concern that the water needed to support the proposed use may affect the aquifer and increase saltwater intrusion.

“There is concern that the size and location of the proposed structure may seriously impair the scenic view, which is required to be protected under the restrictions of the deed,” he added.

Mr. Hanlon told the board it should demand a higher level of environmental review, and then, item by item, he referred to sections of the Fresh & Co. proposal as either wrong or misleading. He also suggested the company has not told the truth about what it intends to do with the property.

He said previous coverage of the issue by The Suffolk Times reported that the company would host tours, dinners, cooking classes and food and wine festivals on the site — the “agri-tainment” that to this group is a four-letter word. Speaker after speaker criticized “agri-tainment” as the bane of the North Fork, where wineries and breweries have evolved into wedding factories and drinking mills rather than tasting bars, as well as parking lots for limousines and buses.

Several speakers pointed out that the Fresh & Co. website shows it is already advertising for a “Fall Harvest Cookout and Bonfire” at the site on Oct. 7. Other speakers noted this as well, and demanded the town send out code enforcement officers to prevent any such event from being held on the property, where all but five acres are preserved.

Mr. Wilcenski said that had already been done.

Few if any speakers pulled their punches. The criticisms ranged from animal manure polluting fragile Hallocks Bay and killing off any hope of a scallop revival, to the much-debated issue of the proper uses of preserved farmland in Southold, to fear that the site will become yet another venue for events incompatible with the hamlet’s rich, more than 300-year-old farming history. Speakers said more than 900 signatures had already been gathered on a petition opposing the proposal.

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, called the proposal a bellwether — approve it, and more like it will surely follow.

Dick Leslie, who described himself as a descendant of Southold’s founding English families, told the board: “Don’t look for ways to modify it or downsize it — just say no.”

He went on to say Fresh & Co. has already cleared brush and erected fences on the site, and has installed what he characterized as “spy cameras.” He said small buildings have been brought onto the property.

“We want you to stand up and simply say no,” he said, adding, “We have never been more united.”

John Bredemeyer, vice president of the Town Trustees and chairman of the Shellfish Advisory Council, summed up what many other speakers hit on: that the Fresh & Co. operation could generate tons of animal manure that would endanger groundwater, wetlands and Hallocks Bay. He said the bay was “on the brink,” and said any additional pollution would wipe out the gains of the past few years.

“Anything you do on the land will go into the water,” he said.

After the last speaker, Mr. Wilcenski said: “We’ve heard you loud and clear. All of your comments and concerns will be addressed.”

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Photo: Orient resident Dick Leslie stands up during Monday night’s Southold Town Planning Board meeting to express concern for Fresh & Co moving into his neighborhood. His neighbors joined him in holding up signs saying they are against the proposal. (Credit: Rachel Siford)