Riverhead Town has taken the owners of Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard on Sound Avenue to court, accusing them of holding illegal events and building additions without town approvals. The town is seeking more than $100,000 in damages and wants the alleged illegal activities halted.
A group of the vineyard’s neighbors has filed its own suit making similar claims but seeking $5 million in damages. The neighbors say they’ve been subjected to noise from parties at the winery, which they contend is operating illegally.
“When the live bands start, it’s just outrageous,” said Jason Lull, who lives across the street from the vineyard and filed the lawsuit in November with his wife, Stacy Yakaboski, who is an attorney. “We can hear it inside our home.”
Meanwhile, Riverhead Town officials are considering tightening the regulations on wineries that hold private parties and play amplified music.
The vineyard’s attorney, Linda Margolin, says her clients are running an agricultural operation and don’t need any town approvals for their activities under state law and the town code. She insisted that the town’s own master plan encourages such uses of agricultural land.
Neighbor Hudson Wells, who is not a party to the other neighbors’ suit, told the News-Review that he lives a quarter-mile from the vineyard and can hear its music loud and clear. “And I can’t turn the volume off when I’ve had enough,” he said.
In its lawsuit, filed in July, the town charges that Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard’s owners — listed in the court papers as Steven and Sharon Levine and Richard Rubin — have “permitted various outdoor events including outdoor weddings and other events” since October 2008 without the required special events permits from the town.
The town also claims the business has held “various events with outdoor music” that have created “unreasonable noise” in violation of the town code.
The vineyard also has operated without the site plan approvals for a gazebo, a wood frame shed, a brick patio, a wine processing building, a second-floor balcony and conference rooms, according to the town.
Defending the winery, Ms. Margolin pointed to a recent court decision that she said allows the vineyard to continue operating while the town lawsuit is pending.
“The town did go before a judge at the very inception of this lawsuit to get a temporary restraining order [to stop illegal activities] and they simply got virtually nothing,” she said. “That’s because the town code does not require site plan approval for agricultural uses and agricultural accessory uses.”
Ms. Yakaboski says the events and retail sales that are happening at the winery are not agricultural activities. What started with a small farmhouse and horse boarding operation, she said, has expanded to add a tasting room with retail sales upstairs. “Since then, they have expanded into a bar, a catering hall and a nightclub,” she said.
“Apparently the neighbors don’t like the town code or the New York State Agriculture and Markets law,” Ms. Margolin commented. She said the activities mentioned by Ms. Yakaboski “are permitted. Ag and Markets has issued guidelines indicating that a whole variety of direct marketing activities by farm wineries that include entertainment are perfectly appropriate.”
“I am from an agricultural family and this has nothing to do with agriculture,” Ms. Yakaboski said. She and Mr. Lull say there is constant noise coming from the vineyard on weekends in the summer and that they can never get any quiet time in their own home.
“We’re going to be forced to move if they don’t fix this,” Mr. Lull said. “We feel like this is not our home anymore.”
“I understand the importance of wineries, but you’ve got to take into account the rights of people,” Ms. Yakaboski continued. “A lot of us have struggled with the question of how far are they going to go in the name of agriculture.”
“Maybe if it wasn’t so loud, nobody would say anything,” said Tom Schoenewolf, another neighbor who says he can hear loud music from his house, about a quarter-mile away.
Mr. Lull says the vineyard also is allowing amplified music to be played beyond a court-imposed limit of 2 to 6 p.m. He has collected schedules posted on the vineyard’s website advertising bands playing beyond 6 p.m.
Town attorney Dawn Thomas said the town is looking into seeking contempt of court charges against the vineyard because of the amplified music.
“The amazing thing to me is that the town appears to have completely forgotten about its own comprehensive plan,” Ms.
Margolin said. “The comprehensive plan says that one way to preserve agriculture in the town is precisely to facilitate things like this.”
She said it’s as if the town is saying “you can have a business that’s agricultural, but you’re not permitted to be successful.”