Anyone trying to get into Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library Friday night might have found themselves parking a street away. An estimated 110 people packed themselves into the nonfiction section, elbow to elbow, to hear Stacey Soloviev speak.
A well-known figure on the North Fork — she was named northforker’s Person of the Year in 2021 — Ms. Soloviev oversees Soloviev Group properties on the North Fork, including about 2,000 acres of farmland. She manages other properties on the East End belonging to her ex-husband, including the Chequit Hotel on Shelter Island and Peconic Bay Vineyards and Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm, both in Cutchogue. Other more recent purchases include the former Coster-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue and Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy.
Reference librarian and program coordinator Dawn Manwaring invited Ms. Soloviev to the library in January, partially, she said, to quiet some of the hearsay flying around.
“There were so many rumors going around. I was like, I would love to just talk to her. And if I want to do it, then I think a lot of other people would be interested,” Ms. Manwaring told The Suffolk Times after the lecture. She lives near a few of the Soloviev properties, so she had a personal interest in hearing what Ms. Soloviev had to say. Plus, she knew about Ms. Soloviev’s fundraisers for the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation and special education programs, such as “Sensitive Santa” nights at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm.
“What I’m hearing about her and the family don’t match what I’m seeing,” she said. “I want to know the real story.”
And, based on what Ms. Soloviev said this past Friday, the real story is that no, she does not plan to exhume bodies from local cemeteries. She does not plan to mass develop land on the North Fork. And, she emphasized, she makes business decisions with the best interests of the community and local farmers in mind.
The Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy will continue with the same employees. The former funeral home will be converted into six apartments to meet housing needs on the North Fork. There are no formal plans right now for the Peconic Bay Vineyards boutique hotel, other than a vision and desire to include local businesses wherever possible.
“I was in the city doing a wine tasting with our wines. And a person was there from the Real Deal [a real estate website]. I didn’t know that,” she said. “I told him my big vision for getting people back on the land, back in nature, learning how to work with the soil … But I hadn’t had a plan, you know, it was just an idea. And then it just blew up.”
Ms. Soloviev fielded questions ranging from facets of her personal life — details about her children, where she lives, how she ended up on the North Fork — to more aggressive inquiries about her plans for development and whether she’s truly considered their local impact.
Ms. Soloviev was born to a farming family in Canada. Her family later moved to Montana, before Ms. Soloviev came to New York as a nanny. That’s where she met her ex-husband, Stefan Soloviev.
Married at 18 to Stefan, who was 22 at the time, the couple soon moved to their first farm in Kansas. Ms. Soloviev said it was during that time that she learned how to improve farming profits. They paid back their loan within a year.
At the same time, the pair started having children — their first child was born with a surrogate when Ms. Soloviev was 23. Three months later, she became pregnant with quadruplets, and soon after, she was surprised with yet another pregnancy.
“I had six babies in two years,” she said. On a lot of bed rest, she settled in with her in-laws in East Hampton. She’d travel to the Kansas farm during the harvest to help feed the workers, do laundry and entertain the children.
She became more involved in East Hampton as her children got older. She joined the PTA, the Greater East Hampton Education Foundation and acted as parent advocate for the Committee of Special Education.
“People with disabilities and children with special needs, that really is my passion,” she said.
She helped build an accessible playground in East Hampton and said across all her businesses, she hires people with autism or Down Syndrome. She is also working to make the Chequit Hotel on Shelter Island accessible and she has been hosting “Sensitive Santa” nights at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cutchogue.
Ms. Soloviev, who ultimately had 11 children with her ex-husband, was divorced from Stefan in 2014 after 18 years of marriage. But that wasn’t the end of their relationship. Mr. Soloviev asked her to oversee the Christmas tree farm, and then Peconic Bay Vineyards, both in Cutchogue. He also asked her to take a look at the Chequit, which Ms. Soloviev said she “fell in love” with. She has been focused on restoring the hotel these past two years. She asked to purchase and “save” the Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy as well.
Ms. Soloviev lamented the decline of East Hampton while she lived there, as the town was bought up “by big developers,” pushing out “mom and pop shops.”
“I’m doing the best I can with farming; farming is very difficult out here to have an actual sustainable crop.”Stacey Soloviev
“We lost our butcher and we lost our breakfast place, we lost our sewing shop. Little by little, everybody had to leave, and they were replaced with Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton,” she said. “We lost our village, we lost all the shops that support Little League and they’d support schools and the dances, and we lost all the restaurants that we would go to after ballet and after school plays, and then we lost the ice cream shop where we’d go after Little League, and it just didn’t feel like a community anymore.”
She emphasized that she’s been trying to prevent the same from happening to the North Fork.
“I kept Santa’s the way it was, and hired back the staff, and the winery and hired back the old winemaker,” she said. “I’m doing the best I can with farming; farming is very difficult out here to have an actual sustainable crop.”
She has planted most of the Soloviev farms to pasture for cattle, which is less labor-intensive, she said, and she oversees grape crops.
Ms. Soloviev highlighted the difficult and expensive nature of farming on the North Fork. Agricultural land is around $100,000 per acre, she said, plus she houses laborers and their families, which means selling wholesale is unsustainable. Diesel and fertilizer costs are rising, along with labor, especially as the state overtime threshold for farm workers might gradually drop to 40 hours per week, she added.
“All the farms will be gone on the North Fork,” she said, pointing to rising costs. “If you don’t support the farmers, if you don’t pay 50 cents more for a cucumber, if you go to BJ’s, [if] you go to Riverhead for everything, the farmers can’t survive.”
That’s part of the reason she wants to offer farmers and other local artisans retail spaces on commercial property. “I just think the town and the community really needs to get behind the farmers,” she said, emphasizing how difficult the job is. “It’s not glamorous, you don’t make money on it. It’s passion. Every farmer I know is extremely passionate.”
Ms. Soloviev hopes to build a retail space in front of the proposed hotel on Peconic Bay Vineyard. Hours and days depend on the businesses interested in working with the vineyard. Ms. Soloviev said she would work with the appropriate governments to address traffic at the site.
Faced with complaints about the proposed development of a boutique hotel at the vineyard, Ms. Soloviev said her ex-husband’s lawyers have told them the 9.7-acre commercial zone could be converted to two or three King Kullen-size shopping centers.
“It’s 106,400 [square feet of] retail commercial space, spread out over 13 buildings, each of those buildings up to 8,000 square feet each,” she said, adding that 39 apartments are allowed on top of that, and 23 houses are permitted as-of-right.
“That to me is an astronomical amount of development,” she said. She considered ways to develop the property in a way that’s responsible and respectful to the community, and came up with the agritainment hotel idea that has become somewhat controversial on the North Fork.
There may be guest chefs overseeing wine pairings and hotel guests can “learn how to care for the land, learn how to be in the vines, be with the grapes.” The hotel is meant to be a “zen retreat,” not an event venue, Ms. Soloviev added. Event space would be enclosed in an underground cellar. The winery currently only plays music at a low volume with limited live entertainment.
The 40-room hotel, with a spa and retail operations, would be built with a main building totaling around 6,000 square feet. Right now, she envisions the hotel as an environmentally friendly glass building sunken into the ground and surrounded by greenery. Traffic and the burden on the town would be greater if the property was developed into a housing subdivision, Ms. Soloviev said. She emphasized that no formal applications have been filed yet.
One audience member asked why Soloviev Group hasn’t sold development rights for the vineyard.
“You say you want what’s best for the community, but does the community need another hotel or is it just another profit-making opportunity for you?” he asked.
Bill Edwards — who introduced himself as a former member of the Land Preservation Committee and former Town Board member, as well as a resident since 1990 — chimed in at this point from the audience to note only the town or county can buy development rights.
“I have no idea whether you’ve sold any developer rights. I would like to sell you on the idea of doing it,” he said to light applause, pointing to the Community Preservation Fund, which is dedicated to preserving farmland, open space and community character in East End towns. It’s funded by a 2% real estate transfer tax in those towns.
Ms. Soloviev responded that everything is owned by her ex-husband; she works for him. Plus, some Soloviev farmland already does not have development rights.
“[Stefan] has his own visions of this property. I have been able to tone that down,” she said, emphasizing again how intense development could be. “Either way, I’m tasked with development … I’m trying to do this in the most responsible way.”
“He’s saying, ‘look, you can do it my way, or I’m going to put up big shopping malls,’ ” someone interjected, adding that Mr. Soloviev’s plans are worse than what happened to East Hampton.
“But he’s not. He’s not saying that,” Ms. Soloviev responded. “It’s actually not a threat. It’s not even reality. He had his own vision before I came to the North Fork two years ago. Being here in the community, I have been able to steer him in a different direction and he’s been okay with that, because so far, I have been successful.”
In response to another question from an audience member, Ms. Soloviev said she has not bought or tried to buy any houses on Harbor Lane. As far as the funeral home, she plans to convert it into six apartments for local families.
“We can’t get off our block as it is right now,” a woman said.
“What are you doing with that entrance on Harbor?” someone else asked.
“Everything is in infancy,” Ms. Soloviev said. “I’m very transparent. Everything that I do, I come to the community, I go to the newspapers. Everything that I do is with a lot of dialogue with the town.”
She has not submitted anything for the hotel, which she said she’s been talking about for two years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. And as far as the funeral home, there’s a need for housing. “I’m trying to do housing and I will get beat up. No matter what I do, it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Ms. Soloviev said even she has had trouble finding housing on the North Fork. Although she plans to move, she lives now in a “tiny” house that was once overcome with raccoons, where some of her kids sleep on the couch. “Stefan has the money; I work,” she said.
As the audience continued to press Ms. Soloviev on the vineyard and proposed hotel, her fiancé, Vincent Guastamacchia, jumped in. “Did you understand what she was saying? She’s preserving 2,000 acres of farm vistas on the North Fork,” he said. “What’s more important? Agriculture or preserved land? Does anyone really care about agriculture anymore?”
Once the overtime threshold is lowered to 40 hours a week — a recommendation from the Farm Laborers Wage Board that, if implemented, will gradually drop over the next ten years — “agriculture is done,” he said. He later noted the couple is opposed to “Hamptonization” and urged more people to turn out at public hearings on converting agricultural lands to allow for residential development, which is more impactful than hotels, he said.
“Tonight, I was asked to come and speak about being Person of the Year and the community,” Ms. Soloviev cut in at one point. “We will have many opportunities to speak about the hotel. I’ve already had one public gathering, I will have many more as soon as it’s in production, and that’s really an appropriate time to talk about it.”
Another audience member ventured that the tentative plans for the hotel seem good for Cutchogue, to a smattering of applause.
“I’m by no means supportive of the plan, because I haven’t seen the particulars, but everybody in this room should know, number one, that anything that a developer wants to do is subject to the Planning Board, the whole process of hearings and so forth,” Mr. Edwards said. He also pointed to zoning that protects open space in Southold Town.
Ms. Soloviev said she’s both local and accessible. Hit her up on Facebook, someone joked at one point, or stop by one of her businesses to chat.
“I heard a really good one, that I was buying all the cemeteries and exhuming all the bodies,” she said to laughter from the crowd, referring to one of many rumors. “I was like, wow. I wouldn’t mess with that.”
On the way out, some audience members congratulated Ms. Soloviev. “She did a fabulous job,” one person said.
She was “obviously charming,” Mr. Edwards said after the event. “I mean, how can you not like her? Even the people in the crowd who clearly didn’t approve of her plans liked her.”
Ms. Manwaring, the event’s coordinator, was pleased with how the discussion went.
“I think it alleviated a lot of things, because people imagine things in their mind and they get their own perspective of what’s going to happen, especially on the North Fork,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I know people are afraid of development. They want to keep it the way it is.”
But tonight seems to have shown Ms. Soloviev cares about the North Fork’s future too, she added.