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Searching for answers to fall farm traffic on the North Fork

Complaining about the fall traffic has become the norm as the popularity of pumpkin-picking, “agritainment” and vineyards has led to clogged local roads.

In both Riverhead and Southold towns, officials are hearing the traffic complaints once again this year, and one operation in particular, which dates back to 1978, has been a target in both towns.

The Harbes Orchard Farm on Sound Avenue in Riverhead Town has grown so popular that town officials have posted “no parking” signs along the section of Sound Avenue near the business, and Riverhead police have been working with the Harbes family on ways to find a solution to solve the traffic tangle, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

In Southold Town, it’s the Harbes Family Farm, slightly east of the Orchard, that officials say has led to traffic tie-ups.

“It is the leading source of complaints I am getting, which is completely understandable,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said. “I was stuck in the line of cars well west of the Harbes Orchard Farm in Jamesport last Sunday. It took me 80 minutes to go a short distance that would have taken me 10 minutes any other time of the year.”

“It’s not a family farm, it’s an amusement park,” Jamesport resident Robert Skinner said at a Sept. 19 Riverhead Town Board meeting.

He said that on the day that prompted the no-parking signs, eastbound traffic on Sound Avenue never went faster than 11 mph for most of Sound Avenue.

On the weekend of Sept. 9 and 10, Mr. Skinner said, there were “festivals” taking place at both Harbes Family Farm and Hallockville Museum Farm on Sound Avenue at the same time.

“Can anything be done about this?” he asked.

“We’ve sent the police chief there, they have parking for 1,300 cars, they’ve agreed to pay for police costs,” Mr. Walter said. “Last weekend, we had police at the Garlic Festival [at Garden of Eve on Sound Avenue], and we’ll have police at Harbes. We’ve had drones go up and take a look at it. I don’t think there’s a legal way to stop it.”

Mr. Walter said Harbes moves traffic efficiently in and out of the Harbes Orchard, but the traffic problems are simply the result of the sheer volume on local roads in the fall.

Harbes owner Ed Harbes said in an interview Wednesday that the North Fork has been promoting itself as a farming community for many years, but traffic is a problem that concerns him as well.

“People enjoy what the North Fork has to offer and during apple-picking and pumpkin-picking season, the local roads haven’t been able to handle the amount of people that want to come here,” he said. “We’ve provided a lot of parking and people want what the North Fork has to offer, not just Harbes. But nobody wants the traffic. I’ll be the first to admit that.”

Mr. Walter said Harbes has opened another area on its property to create 300 more parking spaces.

“I don’t know that there’s a solution. We’re on top of it as best we can. If it’s not Harbes in Riverhead, it’s going to be Harbes in Southold, and if it’s not that, it’s the Lilac festival,” he said, referring to the popular Lavender by the Bay on Main Road in East Marion.

Mr. Walter said the fall gridlock problem only lasts six weeks.

“There were days when we were in the potato business that we were unsure we had a future in farming, because the marketplace didn’t seem to want what we had.” Mr. Harbes said. “Now, with agritourism, and the beauty of the North Fork in the harvest season, people want it, but everybody likes to come at the same time.”

A few years ago, he said, he went to a restaurant in Jamesport and the owner wanted to buy him a drink because of all the customers Harbes brought to the area, who also went to the restaurant.

Mr. Russell said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley has been communicating with Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller to coordinate efforts.

Mr. Harbes also said Southold Town Police will now have an officer stationed outside the Harbes Family Farm location for the first time.

“The Harbes Family Farm in Laurel has been a chief source of gridlock on Sound Avenue each fall for some years now,” Mr. Russell said. “The Orchard farm has been more recent, but actually seems to be creating a bigger problem. The fact that those two operations are only a few miles apart — and that there are other events and businesses on that road — has elevated the problem from an inconvenience into a crisis.”

But he said the Harbes family has been working with Riverhead and Southold officials to develop solutions.

“There are no easy answers at this point,” Mr. Russell said. “Investments in the infrastructure to alleviate the problems are too expensive and wouldn’t be supported by the public. If we were to propose widening Sound Avenue, we would be covered with a particularly thick coat of tar and feathers.”

The supervisor said it’s the overall volume of traffic in the fall that creates bottlenecks on both Sound Avenue and Main Road.

Mr. Harbes said one idea they have contemplated is having a Harbes farm somewhere in the western part of Riverhead to reduce the amount of traffic heading to Sound Avenue.

Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy said because Sound Avenue is a historic road, it cannot be widened to make a turning lane so that cars turning off the road won’t block traffic.

But, he added, farmland is what residents wanted.

“We’re farmland out here, and farm stands aren’t doing any business because there’s a lot of them,” Mr. Dunleavy said at a recent Town Board meeting. “That’s why they have to put up recreational areas for people to bring the kids while they go shopping. If we’re going to have farms, we’re going to have to do things like this, and it’s going to take a month or two where we’re going to have to bear with it. We don’t want housing out here. We want open space and farms.”

Mr. Russell said the Harbes Orchard has parking for hundreds of cars yet it provides little relief from traffic problems.

“I wish I had a solution but there are none readily available,” he said.

“We value the support of our community just as much as we enjoy the support of our customers,” Mr. Harbes said. “Every business needs customers and we’re going to continue to look into ways to address the traffic.”

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Photo: Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck, one of the farm’s several North Fork locations, draws huge crowds on fall weekends that contribute to heavy traffic along Sound Avenue and Main Road. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)