Southold Town Board withdraws winery proposal after ag community speaks out

Dozens of speakers at a packed Southold Town Hall Tuesday night, including some wearing “Support Local Farmers” pins, urged the Town Board to reconsider its proposed code amendments on winery standards. 

Nearly five hours later, they got their wish when the board voted unanimously to withdraw the resolution.

A common message among speakers — mostly farmers, and vineyard and other business owners — was a plea for the town to go back to the drawing board to address a provision that wine would have to be made from at least 80 percent of grapes grown on site or other land owned by the winery.  The amendments would have also allowed 20 percent of wine sold at a winery to be from other Long Island wineries.

Speakers at the lengthy hearing often expressed frustration and a sense of being blindsided by the proposed changes. They had also asked the the board to re-examine a requirement that 10 acres be dedicated to the growing of grapes. 

Steve Mudd, who owns one of the region’s leading vineyard management companies, said grape growing is farming.

“This proposed new code is 100 percent anti-farming code,” he said.

Supervisor Scott Russell said he was urged at a public hearing in April to adopt a code and “then work out the glitches later.” He said a variety of percentages and numbers were suggested at that meeting.

When speakers said Tuesday that 80 percent was simply too much, Mr. Russell asked “What’s the number?”

Russell Hearn of Premium Wine Group in Mattituck speaks at Tuesday’s hearing. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

Winemaker Russell Hearn said it takes three or fours years for a winery to “come online,” so it’s necessary in the meantime to buy grapes from others in order to jumpstart a business. The proposed code would have “set up an uneven playing field for future wineries to get into the business,” he said.

Adam Suprenant, co-owner of Coffee Pot Cellars, said he disagreed with Mr. Russell that it was better to pass legislation — which he called “poorly conceived, poorly written and just plain bad law” — and then work out the kinks.

“The code as proposed is just an egregious way the town is regulating what happens at a winery through zoning code,” Mr. Suprenant said during the hearing.

Anthony Sannino, vice president of the Long Island Wine Council and owner of Sannino Vineyard, described the “vigorous” planning process he went through for a winery application as “unchartered territory.” He said the lengthy process taught him “we can’t develop a code that’s gonna actually satisfy every property.” 

Tuesday’s hearing came just over three weeks before the town’s alcohol farm products working group is set to expire. Members of that group had expressed frustration that the code amendments were proposed before the group had concluded its work and made recommendations to the Town Board.

Group member Anne Murray of East Marion requested that the Town Board extend the group’s term, so it could continue working on those recommendations.

Working group member Louisa Hargrave, co-founder of the region’s first winery, reiterated from a meeting last month that the group did not recommend the proposed amendments or believe there would be a public hearing or vote on winery legislation until a more comprehensive view was established.

“We need to decide how we want Southold to look in 10, 20 years,” she said.

It was standing room only during the hearing. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Rob Carpenter pointed to how almost 30 percent of land in town is agricultural. He said the full ag industry was not involved in the development of the proposal and he expressed a willingness to sit with the town and working group members on any issues of concern they may have.

“The farming community will no longer stand for being pushed around,” he said. “We are watching and watching closely what happens in this town.”

Some speakers pointed to the impact local wineries have on the tourism economy as a reason to rethink the code changes. North Fork Promotion Council president Duncan Kennedy expressed support for the agriculture industry, noting how winery visitors also spend money elsewhere in town.

Town Board member Bill Ruland said as the hearing drew to a close that it was clear from the public comments that the issue needed to be visited again and include involvement of people with expertise on the subject, including the working group,  the town’s agricultural advisory committee and others who offered their help Tuesday evening.

Councilman Jim Dinizio said he had not planned on voting in favor of the change.

“Obviously we didn’t know what the industry was until tonight,” he said.

Town Board member Bob Ghosio pointed to the support he saw within the agriculture industry at the hearing. He said given the input, he wasn’t sure the proposed code changes were the way to go.

“I, for one, do not want to tell you how to farm,” Town Board member Jill Doherty said.

Mr. Russell said the amendments were only meant as a way to “get agriculture back into the agricultural zone.”

“The idea we’re going to run around with these secret plots is abhorrent,” he said.

Top Caption: Long Island wine region pioneer Louisa Hargrave, right, at Tuesday’s hearing. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell proposed the amendments. Mr. Russell sent the following Wednesday morning: “The support for 10 acres of grapes came from the committee. The final version came as a result of no less than 10 people sitting at the table at a code committee meeting”