Judge: Ag laws prevent town from halting vineyard operations

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard won a victory in its court battle with Riverhead Town. But neighbors are filing their own suit.

A state Supreme Court judge has denied Riverhead Town’s request for a preliminary injunction against Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, which the town claims is operating without proper approvals.

The vineyard has drawn the ire of some neighbors, who say it is operating more like a nightclub than a winery and has consistently played loud music. The town’s lawsuit says the vineyard is holding special events, like weddings and parties, without obtaining the proper town permits and that it is operating outside of what its site plan allows.

But the vineyard’s attorney has argued that as an agricultural use, Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard is exempt from needing some of the approvals that the town and neighbors claim they lack.

“The town code does not require site plan approval for agricultural uses and agricultural accessory uses,” said Linda Margolin, the attorney for the vineyard.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Peter Mayer largely echoed that opinion in his ruling Thursday, according to both town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz and Ms. Margolin.

That decision, which has yet to be put into writing, cites sections of the town’s master plan, the state’s agricultural and markets law and the town’s right-to-farm legislation in backing the vineyard, both attorneys said.

The master plan urges the town to “promote the growth of the wine industry and agro-tourism in Riverhead.”

“We’re very pleased that this ruling is entirely consistent with the town code and the master plan, which are intended to embrace what farmers must do in order to have success,” Ms. Margolin said.

She said there is “some level of entertainment that people have come to expect to be part and parcel of the winery experience, not only here, but everywhere.”

The judge also disputed the claims that the vineyard was in violation of the town’s noise code, saying agriculture is granted exemptions from noise codes in state and town regulations.

But neighbor Jason Lull, along with his wife, Stacy Yakabowski, has brought a second lawsuit against Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard. He said he believes that “when laws granting noise law exemptions to farmers were created, they were referring to noise from tractors and generators and irrigation, not from rock bands.”

Mr. Lull believes the ruling will set a bad precedent.

“It definitely opens up a huge can of worms,” he said. “This is leaving agricultural businesses virtually unrestricted and it pays no attention to existing covenants and restrictions. If there is some element of agriculture to your business, you can do anything you want. I guess we can just plant three tomato plants in the backyard and we can host weddings.”

Supervisor Sean Walter said the town will appeal the ruling, which applies only to their request for a temporary injunction and not to the overall lawsuit.

“I think the ruling is a little too expansive in its reading of what constitutes agriculture,” Mr. Kozakiewicz said. “It also didn’t take on the issue of applicants who receive site plan approval and then convert to something different from what they received the site plan approval for.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Walter said the town is still considering revamping its regulations regarding special events at vineyards and wineries. He said he hopes to set up a meeting this month to get input from the Long Island Farm Bureau and local vineyard owners.

[email protected]