The Southold Town Board denied a special events application Tuesday for a Bedell Cellars winery to bring back a popular event series next month.
The board rejected the permit in a 5-1 vote, with councilwoman Sarah Nappa voting in favor of the events.
“There’s nothing to distinguish them from special events,” Supervisor Scott Russell said during a work session discussion ahead of Tuesday’s vote. He argued that the nature of the application “undoes” the intent of the special events law.
The recurring Twilight Series is hosted at Bedell’s Corey Creek vineyard property on Tuesday and Thursday nights and features live music and food trucks. According to Bedell CEO Trent Preszler, the event was founded 12 years ago in partnership with the Rolling in Dough pizza truck and has more recently featured food trucks from Mattitaco and the North Fork Table & Inn, which he noted are all operated by local residents.
At a meeting July 14, the Town Board initially approved eight events as part of the series, on the condition that they abide by current capacity restrictions in place due to the coronavirus. The applicant had originally sought permission for 18 events, though some of the original dates had passed due to delays associated with COVID-19 closures. The application was dated Feb. 21.
At issue is whether the special event applications are an attempt to skirt a section of code that prohibits food trucks from operating at wineries.
“If you put in for this many, are these special events or is this a business plan?” Councilman Bob Ghosio asked at a July 14 meeting.
The debate continued Tuesday morning and ultimately failed to gain support among Town Board members.
Ms. Nappa, who has been an outspoken supporter of modifying the code to allow food trucks at wineries and farms, argued that it’s a series of seasonal special events — not a year-round business plan.
But Justice Louisa Evans said she considers it a business plan that’ll likely be followed in future summers.
“I think of special events as a wedding or a concert that’s a one-time thing,” she said, adding that she fears green-lighting these events could set a risky precedent.
Earlier this year, Mr. Preszler petitioned the Town Board to allow food trucks at wineries in an effort to aid in the economic recovery from COVID-19, an idea that did not gain wide support from the board.
An online petition by Long Island Wine Country, also known as the wine council, asking the town to regulate and allow food trucks has gained over 200 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
In an email Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Preszler said the current code interpretation that food trucks aren’t a permitted use on agricultural lands “has no basis in current reality.”
He said the overly restrictive policy has led to food trucks moving over to businesses in Riverhead Town and has also resulted in the loss of tax revenue and middle-class jobs.
“The town has had many chances over the past 10-15 years to work in partnership with the Long Island Wine Council to rewrite the code so it is actually relevant to the modern, culinary, food-and-wine-driven tourism economy of the North Fork. Instead, they chose the path of over-regulation and are stifling business growth in the town at the worst imaginable moment in history,” Mr. Preszler wrote.
With recent guidance from Gov. Andrew Cuomo shifting to mandate that establishments serving alcohol to also serve food, Mr. Preszler believes food trucks are a logical solution to the social distancing conundrum.
He described the inaction and permit denial are “politically tone deaf” as businesses clamor to recoup revenue.
Though he ultimately voted to deny the permit, Councilman Jim Dinizio argued during Tuesday’s work session that businesses need additional economic opportunities because of the pandemic.
“We’re not in normal times here and we need to do whatever we can to get business into town,” he said.
At least one Southold restaurant — Jeni’s Main Street Grill— has closed its doors amid the pandemic. Ms. Nappa said a restaurant closure could be the start of a troubling trend.
“We need to do all we can,” she said. “This is just the beginning of a very difficult time for this area, for local businesses.”