Southold Drops Idea of Wine Moratorium, But What Happens Now?

The site of Southold Farm & Cellar, now closed. • Photo courtesy of Southold Farm & Cellar

On August 5, 2016, the wine writer for the biggest newspaper in the United States stated Southold Farm+Cellars was having its “dreams dashed by zoning laws and [the] bureaucracy” of Southold Town. In the story, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote the region’s culture was causing the vineyards’ owners, Regan and Carey Meador, to give up and move to Texas, “where the wine industry, like that on the North Fork, could use more intrepid producers like the Meadors.” Asimov added: “Their wines are pure and delicious, energetic and alive. Theirs is the very model of a small, successful mom-and-pop farm, the new pastoral American dream, and just the sort of new blood to inject vigor into an often staid North Fork wine culture.” The story got a half page in the Wednesday food section with a color photograph.

By the end of October, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell floated the idea of a temporary moratorium on new winery, brewery and distillery applications to review gray areas in the code regarding agricultural production and alcohol. Members of the town board got edgy, the Long Island Wine Council and the Long Island Farm Bureau went on the record opposing a moratorium, and letters and opinion pieces started showing up in the pages of the local paper stating a moratorium’s only outcome would be punitive for those trying to run wineries, breweries or distilleries in the township. [During a December 20 board meeting the idea of a moratorium was dropped. This article was submitted before the meeting. Ed.]

News of the proposal came to the attention of a local news affiliate, CBS2. Their November 3 story squarely placed the motivation for the moratorium on a tragic fatal crash in July 2015 in which four young women celebrating a bachelorette’s party were killed as their limo, which had just left Vineyard 48, made a U-turn at the corner of Depot Lane and County Road 48 and was hit by a pickup truck. (Charges against the limo driver have been dismissed. The pickup truck driver is still fighting DWI charges.)

In the report Russell is shown saying: “A lot of industries are focused on alcohol consumption; as a community, we have to figure out when does the sponge become full, and step back and say maybe this is more than we can handle as a small town.”

On November 5, Ali Tuthill, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, released a statement, which opened with: “While the Long Island Wine Council does not believe Supervisor Russell’s suggestion of a moratorium on wineries in the Town of Southold is necessary, we appreciate the Supervisor’s inclusive approach to this matter and we are open to his concerns which demonstrate his acknowledgement of the huge impact that our member wineries have on the economy of Southold, the North Fork and the East End.” The statement goes on to outline the wine industry’s positive impact and increasing national renown. Robert Carpenter, of the farm bureau, said in an interview that his organization opposed a moratorium but “would be happy to work with the town, to resolve any outstanding issues and come to a consensus.”

“One cannot isolate wineries from this problem; we’re not a scapegoat,” — Roman Roth

These measured statements hardly portray the positions of wine council members, who believe wineries are being singled out. “There is not a real foundation for a moratorium,” said Roman Roth, president of the wine council. “The bottom line is: This is something that affects ag altogether. Everyone is a contributor. One cannot isolate wineries from this problem; we’re not a scapegoat.” I also heard complaints about how the town’s agricultural advisory committee had been working on the agriculture code for four years, and about the “bulk schedule” already in the zoning section of the code, which regulates where areas of the town can be used for residential or commercial purposes. Bulk schedule refers to the numbers of acres necessary to build in any zone. On agricultural conservation zoned land in Southold Town, the minimum lot size is two acres. Currently the town requires at least 10 acres of agricultural production to build a winery. The Meadors had that, but the land had already been preserved by purchase of development rights; so, no building. They also had a contiguous one-acre lot, grandfathered in, where they lived in a renovated farmhouse. So, according to existing code, if the Meadors wanted to build a winery, they’d need a two-acre lot, which they wouldn’t get unless a neighbor sold them some property. (In addition, buildings in AC-zoned land must be set back at least 100 feet from the road.)

“This is the problem,” said Russell in a phone interview when he admitted the Meador case and resulting story was a prompt for a moratorium, “everyone thinks he was trying to put a winery on his farm; he was trying to put a winery in his yard.”

What Constitutes a Farm Stand?

Scott Russell • Photo courtesy of the Suffolk Times

Agriculture in Southold Town started with farmers who made their money growing one crop, like potatoes or cauliflower, and more often than not sold it all to one customer. Few had farm stands. Now shoppers can visit a number of farm stands for a variety of produce. During that evolution, farm stands began selling bananas, quilts, candles or peaches from Georgia. By the early 2000s, the town decided it was time to define “farm stand” and outline permit requirements.

I was working for one of the local papers in the run up to this codification, and it was lively. Russell, who has served as supervisor since 2006, was in office. Signs went up saying “No Bananas.” Farmers would protest during public hearings by parking their tractors in front of town hall.

In 2008 the board adopted Chapter 72. It defined where and how big a farm stand could be, how big the farm had to be, the number of parking spots required and what a stand could sell, etc. The short story? Sixty percent of sales of a farm stand’s unprocessed (raw) offerings must be grown on-site, which must be at least seven acres; the other 40 percent could include unprocessed (raw) items from other farms in Southold. That 40 percent could also include “processed agriculture product,” jelly, pickles, honey or horseradish sauce and the like. In the code, processed agriculture product includes “wine and other alcoholic beverages.” That’s the only time “wine” (or for that matter “alcohol”) appears in Chapter 72.

Meador’s national press wasn’t limited to the New York Times. In May 2016, Wine Enthusiast stated: “In 2015 Meador initiated plans to build a winery. However, the Town of Southold claimed he lacked the necessary variances to begin the project.” In fact, Meador had already done more than initiate plans: He had secured a farm winery license in 2013; according to his Kickstarter, the project launched February 2013. Immediately after, he started building a tasting room behind his house and had sworn to the New York State Liquor Authority that he had all necessary permits when he applied for his license. The Meadors held events in the tasting room up until early 2016.

The town didn’t want to give him a permit for a winery on a one-acre parcel. Meador took his case to the zoning board of appeals and attracted more local attention by asking for a 71 percent variance for a tasting room that was already accepting visitors. His Facebook updates created a bright line in comments between those who thought the town was “anti winery,” and those who thought the Meadors were “anti neighbor.” His reasoning was outlined in a January 2016 op-ed column in the Suffolk Times, the local paper, where he identifies as “a winemaker and winery owner in Southold.” In it, he proposes changes to the law to make it easier for smaller wineries to be permitted on smaller parcels, including allowing production on preserved land and in industrial parks. He also called for a cap on production. A max of 5,000 cases per year, he said, would keep traffic down and allow producers to focus on quality.

Not all of the other wineries backed Meador’s efforts. Trent Preszler, CEO of Bedell Cellars wrote an op-ed piece in response to Meador, in which he took issue with the idea that “smaller equals better,” and derided Meador’s PR push about “a private legal zoning issue with Southold Town related to your specific property.”

By March 2016 Meador gave up. The ZBA denied his variance, and he put the land up for sale in order to move to Texas. Not long after, he had to surrender his farm winery license because his application to the SLA stated the property “confirmed to all state and local regulations and zoning codes.” It’s unlikely the liquor authority would ever give him another. In addition, farm winery licenses, according to the state’s application, are only issued if the premises are on a farm.

The Letter of the Law

Southold Town Hall is located at 53095 Route 25.

So what do the codes of the Town of Southold say about the size and placement of wineries? Turns out not much. To start, unlike “farm stand” there is no definition in the code for “winery.” In fact, the word “winery” or “”wineries” shows up only 14 times. “Farm stand” gets its own article. “Tasting room” does not show up at all. The zoning section of the code regarding residential- and AC-zoned land, like Meador’s, states wineries are permitted with these standards:

  • The winery shall be a place or premises on which wine made from primarily Long Island grapes is produced and sold;
  • The winery shall be on a parcel on which at least 10 acres are devoted to vineyard or other agricultural purposes, and which is owned by the winery owner;
  • The winery structures shall be set back a minimum of 100 feet from a major road; and
  • The winery shall obtain site plan approval.

(Note the required 10 acres does necessarily have to be planted with grapes vines.) What if you have a 10-acre vineyard with no winery and are selling your wine on site—which is happening in tiny tasting rooms all over Southold—are you subject to the code governing farm stands?

If these tasting rooms are farm stands, then according to the code only 40 percent of their sales can be “processed agricultural products” like the honey mentioned above. (According to state law, farm stands can obtain a license to sell New York wine; however, tastings are not allowed.) In practice, if they are tasting rooms, they can do whatever they want, because tasting rooms are not defined.

Looking Ahead—and Out West

So where can the Town of Southold look for guidance? Sounds weird, but the North Fork of Long Island and Napa Valley are essentially the same size, about 20 miles long and about five miles wide. They both have two parallel main roads bordered by a mix of vineyards, wineries and neighborhoods. And you can bet they went through similar scenarios of this as the world’s thirst for Napa cabernet exploded in the 1980s. Zoning in Napa is controlled by Napa County, which is much bigger than the valley and thus has a larger government than Southold Town. The county had to get to work to calm the tensions between wineries wishing to expand and residents wanting to keep things quiet. The result was the Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990. Now referred to as the WDO, the law was created after input by committees and trade groups including Napa Valley Vinters, which represents producers and Napa Valley Grape Growers, which represents the vineyard owners and workers, and the public. It went through public hearings.

He adds: “You can’t have a tasting room without a production facility. That’s just a bar.”

David Morrison, the current director of planning, building and environmental services for Napa County, says he was in grad school during the adoption of the WDO and can’t remember if there was a moratorium at the time, but says, “There are calls for moratoriums now.” Essentially, the WDO says to have a winery a producer must have at least 10 acres. The winery itself cannot occupy more than 25 percent of the property. On that 25 percent, no more than 40 percent can be used for promotion, i.e., a tasting room or for events. “Tasting rooms are accessories to the wineries, and wineries are accessories to the vineyard,” said Morrison in a phone interview. “This is to ensure the primary use of the land is agriculture.” He adds: “You can’t have a tasting room without a production facility. That’s just a bar.”

And that’s just the beginning. Wineries must also conduct biological and traffic surveys; analyze water use and whether cultural resources, such as Native American artifacts, will be disturbed. They have to submit reports on noise and odor impacts.

Regarding water, wineries must have wastewater treatment on site, said Morrison. “A pond or a package treatment system. Some store wastewater and get it hauled off. A few are on public water, but most are on wells.”

The WDO covers everything from whether the art on the wall can be for sale (it can’t), whether childcare facilities are allowed (they are for the children of workers) and the size and placement of signs. In addition all events must be wine-education based. No weddings. All tours and tastings must be prearranged. No limos, no buses, no cars can just drop in. In addition, Napa County defined a “small winery” in 1981: It cannot produce more than 20,000 gallons of wine per year, must be on a parcel of at least four acres and cannot conduct public tours or provide wine tastings, sell wine-related items or hold social events of a public nature.

Napa is busy. Morrison said they placed more focus on compliance in the last two years. “We’ve had to up the number of code enforcement officers.”

Must Southold enact a moratorium to create its own version of a WDO, as Supervisor Russell still believes? It has enacted moratoriums in the past when rewriting or writing code to permit new uses. In 2005–2006 three moratoriums of about three months each were placed when the board was faced with allowing big box stores; no new permits for retails stores of more than 3,000 square feet could be filed. They also enacted moratoriums on cell towers and on docks, while struggling with proposals that weren’t clearly defined. (Docks was a big one. It pitted homeowners against the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, which the board adopted in 2004.)

A moratorium, said Russell during an interview, would not affect applications already in process. “It’s designed to update the code to meet the needs of an evolving industry.” And the evolution is going away from larger wineries with 50-plus acres on the main roads to 10-acre lots in residential areas. “Southold’s Agricultural Advisory Committee has been working to propose sweeping changes to the town code,” he also said. “Primarily, these changes would apply to most agricultural uses but exclude processing.” (Read Russell’s pitch for a moratorium in this op-ed piece.)

In Southold, a recent public hearing regarding two new winery projects drew a full house and a “tense exchange” as reported in the Suffolk Times. An object of tension was whether a 3,600-square-foot building would include production. Also residents were worried about traffic, parties and food trucks.

Be prepared for more. Maybe the New York Times will write about it.