By Andrew Wroblewski
Neighbors in Northport are trying to sober up a plan calling for a winery adjacent to Norwood Avenue Elementary School, but their pleas for the Town of Huntington to hold back the application may be moot as the town’s jurisdiction appears to be limited.
Frederick Giachetti received approval from the Huntington Planning Board in June to begin growing grapes on his 10-acre property at 29 Norwood Road, which is immediately east of the elementary school. Giachetti promised the board he would reappear for site-plan approval before constructing a building that would complete Del Vino Vineyard.
Giachetti’s proposal calls to renovate an existing 4,300-square-foot farmhouse on the property and turn it into a 7,189-square-foot structure dedicated to the serving, producing and storing of wine and wine-related products. The plans include 60 parking stalls and 94 seats. At this time, Giachetti’s proposal does not include plans to host events like weddings or bridal showers on the property, although that approval could later be sought.
The proposal was presented to the planning board during a public hearing at its Dec. 2 meeting. The hearing lasted more than three hours and drew 19 speakers, most of whom said they live in Northport or surrounding areas. Most said they oppose the winery.
Speaking on the behalf of the Northport-East Northport school board, Hauppauge-based attorney Carrie-Anne Tondo said “the district vehemently opposes this application” citing concerns with alcohol consumption near the school; the spraying of pesticides; and increased traffic.
She said, “While the preservation of farmland and the protection of open space across our island is certainly an important policy matter, the protection, well-being and health and safety of the 365 kids that attend the Norwood Ave Elementary School is paramount, and that should be under consideration by the board.”
Giachetti’s camp attempted to meet the school board’s concerns with potential solutions, stating that there would be two fences and landscaping serving as a buffer between the school and winery properties.
Michael Russo, Giachetti’s architect, said the winery is farther away from the school than the state-mandated 200 feet door-to-door. He said the “most restrictive dimension” puts the school 311 feet away from the winery’s property line, but that, building-to-building, it’s planned to be 431 feet away.
Ultimately, however, Giachetti’s attorney, Anthony Guardino, said it may not be up to the town to decide whether corks will be popped at Del Vino Vineyard.
Guardino takes the position that the winery operation is protected by state Agriculture and Markets Law since the property was approved as a county agricultural district earlier this year. First approved by the county legislature and signed by Executive Steve Bellone in July, the state agriculture department gave its approval in August.
Giachetti has also applied for and received a state winery license, which Guardino said allows for the production, sale and serving of wine on the property.
Guardino said that Giachetti does not require site-plan approval from the town’s planning board unless public health and safety are “threatened.” Guardino said his client will go before the planning board for site-plan approval since he agreed to do so in June.
However, Guardino noted that if his client feels there is an “unreasonable restriction” holding his application back that he can then go to the state for a ruling that could supersede the planning board’s.
Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone addressed this exact point during the public portion of the town board’s Dec. 8 meeting after several speakers raised concerns about the winery.
“If it’s a designated agricultural [district] we do not have much of the zoning authority that we would have in most projects,” Petrone said.
In a later interview, Petrone called the proposal “unique” and said the town’s hands are “tied to a great extent.
“Obviously where it will have an effect on public safety and the communities, we’re going to look at everything that is in our power to make sure that restrictions will apply,” he said.
Local residents to the property who spoke at the public hearing addressed these concerns of public safety.
A total of 11 people spoke in opposition to the proposal, including 25-year Norwood Road resident, Alice Abbate, who presented a petition she said has 350 signatures.
“We bought our homes in a residential neighborhood,” Abbate said to the planning board. “We’re here begging you, imploring you to understand that we live where we live. It’s our own little kingdom.”
She added, “Maybe a winery is a good idea some other place.”
But there was also support as seven people spoke in favor of the proposal.
One of them was Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who backed the proposal to enroll the property within the county’s agricultural district.
Trotta said he believes preserving open space is important and that a “balance” can between Giachetti and the public met in order to iron out concerns.
“It’s about trust,” Trotta said. “If there are weddings there three days a week, I will tell you personally I will be there protesting with you. I will lie down in front of the doorway if they have weddings because that’s wrong.”
He added “This is an opportunity for us to preserve open space. Because once he sells that [land] and builds houses, it’s gone forever.”
After the public hearing, Huntington Planning Board Chair Paul Mandelik left the hearing open for two weeks to allow for further comment on the proposal. A vote on the winery proposal was not listed on the agenda for Wednesday’s planning board meeting, which occurred after deadline.