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Southold Town Board will now vote on special events, despite concerns from businesses

Organizations looking to host special events in Southold Town must now seek approval through the Town Board — an administrative change that has businesses that rely on events as a major portion of their revenue stream on edge.

The Southold Town Board adopted the amendment to the the town’s special events law following an hours long public hearing Tuesday night. The crux of the changes shift the decision-making responsibility from the appointed chairperson of the Zoning Board of Appeals to the elected Town Board. A committee will also be formed to review applications for special events before a board vote.

This particular change has no impact, no new restrictions on special events and I am certain it will have no impact other than who reviews it in house,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell to an audience that filled the Town Hall meeting room with concerned speakers whose businesses rely on special events.

Anthony Sannino of Sannino Winery, the current president of the Long Island Wine Council, said he did not view the changes as purely administrative and a large number of public speakers urged the board to keep the public hearing open for further discussion of the issue before voting. The speakers, many of whom represented wineries in town, felt the code change was ambiguous and could leave events vulnerable to arbitrary decisions by committee members and the Town Board. They also sought clarification on application fees and deposits. 

Kate Sepenoski of Seps Farm in East Marion said “quite a bit of fear” has been injected into the agricultural industry concerning the town’s views on special events and how that will impact the viability of their operations. That concern was echoed throughout the night.

“Generally, we need to know what the expectations of our costs are going to be,” said Alie Shaper of Peconic Cellar Door, a boutique tasting room on Peconic Lane. “Most of wouldn’t buy an appliance or a car or any major purchase without knowing what the price is first, and in my opinion it would be the same for deciding as a business if I can afford the application fees or any costs I may run into.”

Councilwoman Jill Doherty said it’s difficult to codify specific costs in the code because they are subject to change over time, but the costs should not immediately change from the current application system.

The number of permits sought for special events has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching a new high in 2017, when the ZBA reviewed 49 applications. By comparison, only three applications were submitted in 2008. Since 2014, more than 30 applications have been submitted each year. Some are bundled permits covering more than one event and they are typically approved.

But what if that were to change under the amended town code?

Mike Falcetta, general manager of Sparkling Pointe Vineyards on Route 48 in in Southold, said wineries are on the hook for a lot of money when booking a wedding, and some are scheduled years in advance, so any uncertainty involving approvals create a great burden.

“We’re often contracting with people and taking deposits well in advance of an application,”Mr. Falcetta said. “If there ever came a time where something that was essentially run of the mill, becomes an opportunity that is denied, we as the businesses become in breach of contract and what are we at stake for?”

‘There is a gamble every single time we have an affair,” he added.

Prudence Heston of Salt Air Farm in Cutchogue shared the same concerns, because some people may book weddings and other events nearly three years ahead of time at her farm.

“I’m really left on the hook here. I’ve told this person they can get married on my farm, and they’re making all those plans along the way,” Ms. Heston said. “There’s always this question mark, and that’s worrisome, and would be very worrisome for brides if they knew.”

One of the points of confusion  in the code change for some speakers comes from clean up fees. Those fees are often charged to community groups hosting events on public property, but businesses wanted assurance they would not be charged clean up fees for events moving ahead, since they are already responsible for the expense of clean up on their private properties. The board said those fees would be waived for private events and that police fees, used to cover the cost of a police presence at an event, would be rare.

ZBA chair Leslie Kanes Weisman spoke out in support of the change, saying she believes it’s a good way for the Town Board to better understand the workings of its business community.

“All that this proposed code changes is to take the decisions out of my hands and to put it in the hands of the Town Board,” she said. “No definition or fees are proposed to be changed at this time. The review of applications will remain the same.”

Councilman Jim Dinizio was the only board member to vote in opposition to the code change. He also voted against closing the public hearing. Board members said they will continue to look at the town code regarding uses at wineries and expressed a desire to work together with the wine industry moving forward on these issues.

Photo: Alie Shaper addresses the Town Board at the public hearing for proposed changes to the special events section of the town code. (Credit: Rachel Siford)