What Will Tonight’s Public Hearing in Southold Mean for Long Island Wine?

How will proposed changes to the zoning code regarding wineries affect local wine? Eileen M. Duffy breaks it down.

The Southold Town Board and members of the town’s wine industry can expect a heated public hearing tonight about proposed changes to the zoning code regarding wineries. (Read the notice of the public hearing, which shows the proposed changes, here.) The proposed changes will only affect the construction of new wineries in low density residential zones of two to ten acres and in agricultural-conservation zones. The public hearing was announced on November 8.

Currently wineries may be built on a property that grows any agricultural product; the new language says it can only be grapes. A new addition to the code is that the winery must be a production facility: All wine must be made on site and must contain at least 80 percent grapes grown on site or other land owned by the winery owner.

The current code calls for a minimum of 10 acres to build a winery. That minimum stands; the proposed change concerns separate lots and states separate lots cannot be used to create that minimum.

As far as accessory uses, the proposed changes allow 20 percent of retail items to be from other Long Island wineries.

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An outspoken opponent of the proposed changes is Alie Shaper, owner of the wine brands Brooklyn Oenology and As If, who buys all her grapes and makes her wine at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck.

She objects to the existing 10-acre minimum and the proposed inability to use separate lots. “It’s prohibitively restrictive to commerce,” she said on Friday. “It’s a barrier to entry for young people who want to get into the business.” She also questions how the changes would affect winemakers who lease land, because land prices are prohibitive, to grow their own grapes and would like to build a winery.

In addition, she believes the town is defining a winery, which, she says, is something only the state or the federal government can do. And she believes it unfair that the land must be planted only to grapes.

Another point of contention is the 80 percent requirement. Wineries often buy and sell grapes depending on the harvest. Some years some grapes are more plentiful than others, and wineries are required to buy from other producers to complete their product line.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell says because Shaper makes her wine at Premium, she will be unaffected, because that winery is in an industrial zone. Tasting rooms like Coffee Pot and Roanoke Vineyards on Love Lane are not affected because they’re in commercial zones, he added.

As far as only growing grapes, Russell says as the code is written now, a sod or horse farm could build a winery and of the 10,000 acres of agricultural land in Southold, wine grapes only cover 2,300 acres. To build farm stands or processing plants, other ag producers have to adhere to a more restrictive code, he says. Farm stands must only sell products grown in Southold, 60 percent from their farm and 40 percent from other farms. They must only be three sided and cannot have insulation or heating.

Regarding the required 80 percent of estate grown grapes, Russell wrote in an email that revisions to the code enacted in April state an ag processing building “is defined as processing products grown solely by the ag operator. That is 100 percent.” (Text of code here with the language “agricultural products of a single farm operation”.) Agricultural processing as defined in the code includes fermentation. Russell adds the 80 percent was found by several members of working groups as feasible. Regarding wineries, Russell emphasized the proposed changes would only affect wineries in agricultural and residential areas that sell their wine on site.

These working groups include an agricultural working group and an alcohol working group; the latter includes wine industry members Louisa Hargrave and Frank Purita. A third member, of the Damianos family, had to drop out. The working groups met in public forums and allowed comments. Russell said he wanted to clarify that he did not tell working group members they could not talk to winery people, as he heard through the grapevine. “I told them what I tell all members of working groups: that they’re going to get all this input, but you have to stay objective the whole time. You can’t look at separate applications, just focus on the code and what Southold needs.”

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As far as the contention that the proposed changes violate state and federal law, Russell maintains the town is within its rights to define which zones can contain wineries and what they must do to follow the zoning code.

“The reality is,” says Russell, “every business that wants to open has certain criteria it needs to open. We’re not going to carve out an exception for wineries and treat them differently from other agricultural areas. That’s not how you govern a town.”

He added, “Every business thinks their business is special and the most important to the community. They’re all important; they’re all special and they all need to be treated consistently with an even handed approach.”

Last fall Russell proposed a moratorium on new winery applications while updates were made to the code. He withdrew the proposal after protests from members or the wine industry. Here’s Edible’s story about the proposed moratorium.

The December 5 public hearing starts at 7:31 p.m. at Southold Town Hall.