Huntington residents left a recent planning board meeting with a bad taste in their mouths, thanks to a proposal to build a Del Vino Vineyards winery directly next door to Norwood Avenue Elementary School.
Frederick Giachetti, owner of the 10-acre property, said in June that he wanted to grow grapes and open a 94-seat wine tasting room instead of subdividing the land into seven residentially zoned properties, which was the original proposal. Community members and the Northport-East Northport School District said they strongly disapproved of the plans due to safety and health concerns for students at Norwood Elementary during a Huntington Planning Board meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 3.
Attorney Carrie-Anne Tondo spoke on behalf of the school district and accused the applicant of not being “neighborly” by skipping several parts of the site plan review process typically requested by the planning board. But Attorney Anthony Guardino, who was representing the applicant, said Del Vino Vineyards is not required by the state to even submit a site plan. He said the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets does not recommend site plan approval for farm operations, including wineries.
“However, if a town does not follow that recommendation, and requires site plan approval, the dept. suggests that the site plan review process for farm operations be streamlined and expedited,” Guardino said in an email.
Guardino said that the school district was referring to requirements from a different type of classification under New York State’s Environmental Quality Review standards.
“Based on a NYS Dept. of Agriculture and Market’s publication…the application should be classified as a Type II action under SEQRA, which would make it exempt from the SEQRA review process altogether,” Guardino said. This includes a traffic study.
“The fact of the matter is we didn’t have to submit anything,” he said. “We’re here before you because we agreed to do the site review but we don’t have to be.”
Guardino said he suggested that if the planning board really wants these extra studies done, they should take it up with the state. But he said Del Vino Vineyards is “fully complaint with the law.”
The district’s biggest concerns included the winery’s hours of operation, pesticide uses, traffic problems, and student safety.
“The board of education takes very seriously the protection of the 365 students who attend the school,” Tondo said.
She also said a traffic study is currently missing from the vineyards site plan approval, and with a proposal of 60 parking spaces, a traffic study is “clearly warranted.”
According to Tondo, the school has bus traffic patterns on the weekdays, and on weekends, the school is used for many different events including soccer games and various club activities. So additional traffic in this area could have an adverse impact, she said.
Tondo also said the school would have a better understanding of how much traffic would be affected if the vineyard released its hours of operations, but they have yet to do so.
“All we’re asking for is full disclosure and transparency, which shouldn’t be issues if you’re looking to be a good neighbor,” she said. “I don’t know why there can’t be some compromise to alleviate concerns for hours of operations.”
Guardino said that the board does not have any power over the deciding for closing and opening hours.
“Hours are at the discretion of the owner within…this board can’t control that,” he said.
Student interaction with patrons at the vineyard was another concern, and Tondo asked if the vineyard is exploring security services. To this problem, Guardino said that building plans included a landscape buffer between the vineyard parking lot and the school, as well as a 10-foot deer fence, and he said he saw no instance where students would be able to converse with patrons.
Tondo also said the district would also like a notification of when Del Vino will be spraying pesticides on their crops because schools themselves are not usually allowed to apply pesticides to their grounds to prevent students from unnecessary exposure.
Guardino said that Giachetti plans to use “state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly pesticide applicators” that recycles whatever pesticides aren’t directly sprayed on a plant and has very little overspray.
Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he thinks this vineyard could be valuable to the town by providing more open space.
“We need open space and for someone from the outside to pay for it is a gift,” Trotta said. “Is this perfect? I don’t know. But I think that you have an opportunity here to work with this gentleman…and for us to preserve open space because once he sells that and builds houses it’s gone forever.”
Alice Abbate, a 25-year resident of Norwood road, presented a petition with more than 350 signatures against the vineyard. All four of her children walk to school everyday at Norwood Elementary.
“My children shouldn’t be afraid that there are 60 parking spaces they’re passing where people have been coming in and out after they’ve been drinking,” Abbate said. “When we bought our home 25 years ago, as did our neighbors, we bought it because it was in a nice quiet neighborhood on a street with a school. Maybe a winery is a good idea some other place.”