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Board rejects Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard lawsuit settlement

A proposed settlement of an eight-year-old lawsuit filed by Riverhead Town against the owners of Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard was rejected by the Town Board last month in a split vote. Board members couldn’t agree as to whether a judge’s July 10, 2017, ruling in that case was in their favor or not. 

In 2010, acting on complaints from neighbors, the town claimed that Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard had built a number of structures without proper town permits and had held concerts with amplified music and “special events” on the site without town approvals.

Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard had claimed in court that town code allows agricultural activities of all types on its property, and exempts structures used for those activities from requiring town approval.

The lawsuit listed as defendants Baiting Hollow Farms LLC, which is the name of the property, Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard LLC and business owners Steven Levine, Sharon Levine and Richard Rubin.

The defendants argued that a tasting house, an outdoor wine tasting area as well as catered events and other “marketing” activities were protected as agricultural uses under the state’s “Right to Farm” laws.
The town wanted state Supreme Court Justice Peter Mayer to order that the structures not be used until proper permits were obtained, and that special events be prohibited until town approvals were secured.

During the final Town Board meeting of 2017, before newly elected members took office, a settlement proposed by the defendants came up for a vote. The settlement terms asked that the town ease up on enforcing the violations while Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard seeks Planning Board approval of all the buildings, parking areas and other structures the town claims are illegal.

The resolution presented for a vote on Dec. 19 agreed with those terms. “The town is willing to accept the [defendants’] proposal in order to avoid the cost and uncertainties of appeals and further court proceedings,” it stated.

But when voting actually occurred, it appeared that wasn’t the case.

“No, absolutely not,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “We won the court case. We spent a ton of money in legal fees trying to stop Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard from having their outdoor events and outdoor tents. We won the lawsuit and there’s no mandate for stipulation giving them any leniency. That’s exactly what this stipulation does.”

Former councilman John Dunleavy, who was still in office at the time, disagreed.

“The judge said they can’t use the stuff they built until they go before the Planning Board and have the Planning Board approve it,” he said, adding that the town would have to have someone on their property to ensure compliance.

“The town doesn’t want to spend that much money to put someone up there to regulate this,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz disagreed with Ms. Giglio’s assessment that the town had won the case. He explained that the town’s lawsuit cited six causes of action, but the judge had agreed with only two of them. As for the others, he said, the judge “dismissed the first cause of action in its entirety, he dismissed the second cause of action, which was to recover damages, and he dismissed the sixth cause of action, which was against the defendants other than Baiting Hollow Farms.” Mr. Kozakiewicz said the judge did not rule on the remaining cause of action.

“The fourth and fifth causes [on which the town prevailed] address the structures and parking on the property and those are the things I’m most concerned about, and are why the litigation was initially started,” Ms. Giglio said. “The other stuff was minutia, in my opinion.”

Councilmen Tim Hubbard and Jim Wooten joined Ms. Giglio in opposing the settlement resolution, while former supervisor Sean Walter and Mr. Dunleavy supported it.

Last Thursday, the new Town Board discussed the case in executive session, which is closed to the public. Mr. Kozakiewicz said after the meeting that Frank Isler, the outside legal counsel the town hired in the case, had reviewed its history for the benefit of the two new board members.

At this point, Mr. Kozakiewicz said, the board could decide either to go back to court or to continue pursuing a settlement.

On Dec. 5, Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard LLC and Baiting Hollow Farms LLC also pleaded guilty in town Justice Court to charges including the lack of approval for a tent on the site, the lack of an approved site plan and fire code violations. The fines totaled $2,600.

Correction: The line saying the board could decide either to go back to court or to continue pursuing a settlement was attributed to the wrong person. It was said by Mr. Kozakiewicz.

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