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Southold Town Board looks to better define special events after businesses submit applications for recurring events

The Southold Town Board is considering changes to the application process for special events permits to limit the frequency of special events among local businesses.  

Board member Louisa Evans, who had requested adding the discussion to the work session agenda, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the board needs “to figure out what special events are.” 

“I thought we originally did this law because we wanted to allow vineyards and farms … to have special events like weddings, and it seems like most of the special events — I mean, we’ve had a whole slew now — are sort of just part of them doing business,” she said. “It’s not a special event, particularly when every single weekend is the same special event, as it’s called. I think we have to look at our special events law and figure out what we actually meant to achieve by it and whether it’s achieving what we wanted it to.” 

Current code defines a special event requiring town board approval as “events held on Town lands or events exceeding 1,000 attendees.” Applications need to be submitted to the Town Clerk at least 60 days prior to the proposed event — a deadline that’s rarely met, board members said Tuesday.  

“We rarely get them that far out, so it hamstrings our ability to send them back and say give us more info,” Supervisor Scott Russell said. 

The town board may consider the “frequency of events proposed or approved for the premises and whether the frequency is so great that the events constitute a persistent usage of the property incompatible with its character or with that of the surrounding area,” according to town code. 

Town attorney Bill Duffy, however, said the code doesn’t offer “any real guidance” on frequency, which makes it more difficult for the town board to kick back applications for events that occur on a regular basis.  

“I think you run into trouble because your definition doesn’t talk about frequency,” he said.  

Mr. Russell said if events are occurring every weekend, they are “no longer special” but “a business model.” He added that many special event applications lack detail, and the board has become “somewhat less than diligent” in the vetting process.  

The board often passes blanket approvals to process events more quickly, Mr. Russell explained, pointing out they only meet every two weeks and many applications are time sensitive. “It’s very difficult. It’s a balancing act,” he said. 

Board members seemed to agree that they need more time to process events, and that applications should include more detail. 

“I don’t know how to solve it, but I think we need to really figure it out,” Ms. Evans said. “I mean, maybe asking more questions when the applications come in, but we do need more time.” 

Board member Sarah Nappa proposed amending the language in the application to request “more specificity from the beginning,” but Mr. Russell responded that some parts of the application are deliberately “open” to allow for flexibility, so that special events can be hosted by any local business. 

“We were trying to create special events legislation, not just for wineries or for farms. It’s town-wide for all businesses,” he said.  

Mr. Russell suggested reinvolving the board in the review process, which had been narrowed because of the pandemic. “I think it needs to go back to the town board for input prior to the night of reading a resolution,” he said.