The question of what — if anything — needs to be done about how the Town of Southold handles the growing craft beverage industry on the North Fork brewed up some trouble in town hall this week.
Discussions grew tense and tempers flared at both the town board work session Tuesday morning and the regular meeting later that afternoon.
Supervisor Scott Russell, whose proposal last month to enact a moratorium on new wineries, breweries and distilleries was not embraced by a single member of the town board, had sharp words for the Long Island Wine Council during the morning work session. The L.I. Wine Council’s executive director and a board member returned the fire at the public meeting that afternoon.
Russell was unhappy with a letter the Wine Council sent to the town board in response to a document he provided them outlining his concerns about the current code’s weaknesses as it pertains to wineries.
The supervisor said he asked them to participate in a working group he wants to assemble to review the code and make recommendations for its improvement. Instead, he said, the council created a working group of its own.
“I would have hoped that they would have meant what they said when they said they were going to work with the town,” Russell told board members.
Wine Council representatives seated in the audience exchanged glances and seemed taken aback by the supervisor’s characterization of their letter.
In the letter, he said, “They talk about review and enforcement of existing regulations. I’m also quite stunned because I’d met with them and talked with them about challenges with some of the exiting businesses that are not code-compliant — not on purpose but because the code simply didn’t accommodate them [when it was written] 30 years ago. What they recommend now is literally to go out and start violating them,” he said.
“I think that’s very draconian, very draconian. I refuse to take such a hard-line stance. In some ways the only way you can comply is to shutter a business. I would absolutely not support that,” Russell said. “It needs to be an inclusive process, not a punitive process. I don’t think it’s good for that industry to take summons books out and violate people.”
The organization’s executive director, Ali Tuthill asked to address the board in response to the supervisor’s statements, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“The work session isn’t really — we’ll have a public meeting tonight so there’s an opportunity to comment during the public meeting,” Russell told her.
The wine council wrote they would “like to see more transparency and consistency” in government,” Russell continued. “The problem there is that people need to engage and go to meetings. You can’t be ambivalent about it. You can’t not be there and then comlpain that it’s not transparent.”
The membership of the town’s working group should have representation not only from the wine industry but from craft brewers and distillers, as well as other businesses and community residents, Russell said.
Supervisor and councilman disagree sharply on path forward
All board members save one seemed to support the idea of creating a working group to review and update the code: Councilman Jim Dinizio said revising the code isn’t necessary. It might well be an exercise in futility, according to the councilman. New things that are currently unanticipated will likely surface within a couple of years to make the revised code obsolete. What the town needs to do, according to Dinizio, is more effectively utilize its existing government structure, streamline the bureaucratic process and handle wineries as special exception uses and with use variances decided by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
That’s exactly what the ZBA is for, said Dinizio, a former member of that body.
But the process must be made “less onerous,” Dinizio said. An applicant should not have to spend six or nine months at the planning board to get permission to do something he’s already allowed to do.
“But the code doesn’t allow it,” Russell countered. He has pointed out that the code doesn’t define what a winery is and that it doesn’t require the operator of a winery to actually grow grapes. “That’s the problem — you want to streamline process from a code that doesn’t exist.”
Dinizio said the code and the government structures put into place when the code was first adopted in the late 1950s should be all the town really needs.
If a use is not allowed as of right, the applicant must go to the ZBA for relief, Dinizio said. He acknowledged that a obtaining a use variance means overcoming “a very high bar” but if the applicant fails, he can still appeal the decision to a court.
“So a use variance, then an Article 78 — that’s not streamlining the process,” Russell said. “You’re sending them down a path of being defeated and that’s not serving the purpose.”
Russell said the board must step back and do a thorough review of the code and update it — and while he’d prefer to do that with a moratorium in place, it needs to be done either way.
The other board members agreed to come back to the Jan. 3 work session with suggestions for the composition of the working group.
The Wine Council turned out for the regular board meeting Tuesday afternoon to respond to the supervisor’s comments that morning — and that led to a tense exchange between Russell and the group’s executive director as well as one of its board member.
Tuthill said the Wine Council and the L.I. Farm Bureau are both committed to open dialogue and working collaboratively with the town. They formed a committee to work with the town, not to work independent of the town, she said. The supervisor “misconstrued” their intention and the meaning of their letter, according to Tuthill, and then “rebuffed” it.
They got into a back-and-forth about whether Russell read their letter verbatim, as he said he did, or paraphrased it and “misconstrued” it, as Tuthill contended.
“We’re not here to pick a fight. We’re here to simply state our willingness to work with you in order to find a solution here,” Tuthill said.
Tuthill maintained that a lot of the supervisor’s concerns that she knew of can be dealt with by enforcing existing state and federal rules. As for the ones that can’t, she said, “We want to work with the town to find solution. We need to know what we are solving for,” Tuthill said.
“We want to see ag survive and thrive out here. We can’t do that if we’re working against each other. Our letter yesterday was an attempt to say we’re here, we have great people willing to act as a resource and partners in this process and that was it,” she said, “And we are still here and willing to work with you,” Tuthill said.
“OK, let’s all clarify for the public record that I had asked you for input,” Russell said. “I reached out to you early on in the process. But I’ve got to be honest, when you go to public meeting like the chamber and someone says where does the moratorium come from and you say, ‘I don’t know,’ that’s not being honest. I think it would have been fair to say ‘We had a discussion with the supervisor. He asked for our input,’” Russell said.
“I am not here to play tit for tat, sir,” Tuthill answered.
“Let’s be honest about the dialogue,” Russell replied.
“I am being honest. I am here again to say our organizations are here as partners and we have a working group that consists of very strong individuals who are dedicated and passionate and want to see this through,” Tuthill said.
Adam Suprenant, owner of Coffee Pot Cellars and a member of the Wine Council’s board of directors took the podium to argue against the moratorium, which he termed “a farce.”
“I want to know how long the cloud of a moratorium is going to hang over our industry’s head without this board voting up or down?” Suprenant asked.
But when Russell tried to answer, Suprenant told him to wait his turn. “You’ve had your time to talk. This is the people’s time to talk,” he said.
“Southold Town has an ag advisory committee. One of our wine council members is the chair,” Suprenant said. “They’ve been working four-and-a-half years on definitions for agricultural uses for chapter 72,” he said. It’s not reasonable to expect a newly formed working group to do it within the time frame of a six-month moratorium, he said.
“The moratorium is not happening,” Russell told him. “The town board doesn’t support it.”