The North Fork has become a not-so-hidden ‘gem.’
Ask developers why new hotels are cropping up on the North Fork and one of their answers, most likely, will be wineries.
The North Fork is wine country. Drive along Main Road and you’ll see wineries sprinkled throughout Southold Town. With the grapes, come the tourists.
The North Fork also boasts a hefty agritourism industry, beautiful beaches, rural vistas and a medley of unique businesses.
“With each passing year, the quality of the wine, and the wine and vineyard experience on the North Fork continues to outdo itself. I can truly say that the North Fork feels like Sonoma 10 years ago and my instinct is that we will have a full-fledged vitta-, agri- and aquaculture experience out here within the next several years,” said Erik Warner, owner of Sound View and The Harborfront Inn in Greenport.
The tourist appeal is, at least in part, the reason for so many Southold hotel proposals in recent years.
In December, the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a special exception use permit to The Enclaves, a 44-unit hotel and 74-seat restaurant along Main Road in Southold. Site plans for Mattituck Hotel suggest the possibility of a 125-room hotel, 275-seat restaurant and 300-seat catering hall along Main Road in Mattituck. And Stacey Soloviev plans to build a 40-room boutique hotel at Peconic Bay Vineyards in Cutchogue. That’s another 209 potential hotel rooms in Southold Town already in the pipeline.
The other reasons for new hotels? Developers have listed the concentration of commercial zoning, “new and unique” businesses and experiences, and argued there’s a demand for more hotel rooms — as well as a range of rates and offerings to choose from — on the North Fork.
A letter submitted by local business owners in support of The Enclaves has similarly argued that hotels will benefit the local economy, support farms and improve safety by offering visitors to wineries and breweries a place to stay for the night.
“I mean, what’s not to like, right? The North Fork has so much to offer to its residents and to guests and tourists, and it’s wild and it’s got beautiful landscapes,” hotelier Daniel Penessi said.
That’s what drew him and his wife Kristen to build The Menhaden, a boutique hotel in downtown Greenport, which they sold last year before re-entering the market with the purchase of the nearby Sunset Motel. Not to mention, the street-grid in Greenport is appealing to people from the city, he added.
“When we talk about the North Fork as far as tourism, the North Fork over the past 10, 20 years has really exploded as far as a destination,” said Dorothy Roberts, vice president of the Long Island Hospitality Association and board member for Discover Long Island. “There’s so many wineries out there, there’s distilleries, there’s destinations now. The North Fork is dotted with those beautiful New England-type of villages there.”
Tourism was a $3.4 billion industry in Suffolk County in 2019, with 2.8% growth that year, according to a Discover Long Island visitor impact study. It has proved profitable enough in Southold Town to sustain nearly 50 hotels, motels and beds and breakfasts over the years, with hundreds rooms to rent in commercial spaces across town.
The pandemic doesn’t seem to have deterred new developments either, at least on the North Fork.
“I think that with the pandemic, people refocused on regional or more local travel and it’s been a boon for the North Fork,” Pennessi said. “I do think it will remain. You even see it now, in the off-season. There’s still a lot of people around.”
Plus, there is a history of hotels on the North Fork. The tourism industry had a rough start — thanks to an odorous commercial fishing industry — but by the early twentieth century, the North Fork was dotted with “some of the finest accommodations outside of New York City,” according to local history book, “Hotels and Inns of Long Island’s North Fork.”
These new hotels in the 21st century, however, have not come without local opposition. The Enclaves in Southold, for instance, was met with dozens of community letters written in opposition and a bitter, packed public hearing that lasted nearly four hours in October.
Katie Peters, a local business owner and Southold resident, pointed out chronic staffing shortages and the high cost of living in the area at the October hearing.
“If this project goes through, I can tell you my husband and I would consider selling our home and leaving our businesses,” she said.
“This project is just too big. It’s going to increase issues that we already have and open the door to drastic and permanent changes to the surrounding community and will likely induce more out-of-scale development in the future of this town,” Marina DeLuca, an environmentalist living in East Marion, said at the time.
Roberts, who also works for hotel developer and operator Oxford Hospitality, said it’s difficult to build large hotels or resorts without community support.
“There’s so many great reasons to go [to the North Fork.] But we also want to keep the quaintness about why people go there. And you also want to have the community be involved or supportive of what you’re doing,” she said.
Pennessi echoed a similar sentiment. Developers need to “spend time and be in that community,” and “be responsive to the community’s needs and responsive to how the community sets their comprehensive or master plan, and how they want to see their communities develop,” he said. “So you’ve got to choose properties with particularity, right? You’ve got to make sure that those properties are consistent with how the community wants to see their community developed.”
And community support aside, it’s “very daunting” to build developments on Long Island, Roberts said. The approval process is expensive and there’s no guarantee the project will go through.
“There are so many levels of government, so many levels of approvals to get in and especially on the North Fork where there’s environmental reasons why you don’t want to develop in certain areas. So typically, the North Fork will have more small inns-type of hotels, and not necessarily your big branded type properties,” she said.
Not to mention, there’s the infrastructure to consider. Traffic was among the chief complaints in the pushback against The Enclaves.
“There’s always that issue of traffic, right? Anytime somebody wants to bring up something about doing a bigger hotel out on the East End, the infrastructure right now, it’s just not there for that,” Roberts added.
But maybe that’s partially why the North Fork is a “gem” on Long Island.
“It’s beautiful in the summertime. In the fall, it’s spectacular, you have all the farm stands, you have all the wineries that are out there and you have all the shops in the villages,” she said.
The North Fork is even lovely in the winter. “It’s just so quaint, so beautiful.”