Dec 20, 2013 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
So much new information has surfaced in the past two weeks, and so many new developments occurred, that the Cazenovia Town Planning Board voted unanimously last Thursday to continue its public hearing on Owera Vineyards’ site plan review for the proposed new events building and probably hold off on any sort of vote on the proposal until February.
The board’s decision came after nearly two hours of neighbor comments at a Dec. 19 special hearing during which it was revealed that Town Codes Enforcement Officer Roger Cook had issued a positive opinion on Owera’s adherence to town zoning laws and state Department of Agriculture and Markets rules, that Owera’s East Lake Road neighbors had appealed Cook’s determination to the town’s zoning board of appeals and that the neighbors had hired an attorney to represent their interests.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell of the meeting occurred when East Lake Road resident Deb Shepherd Moynihan, addressing the concern voiced by neighbors and some planning board members about the future business intentions of Owera’s owners, played a video in which winery co-owner Peter Muserlian told an interviewer that the construction of an “event center,” spa and/or hotel on his property was a potential goal of the business.
“A lot of new information has come out on this tonight, and I’m in no position to vote,” said planning board member Jennifer Basic after the public comments. The other board members concurred.
The Dec. 19 special meeting was the latest in a string of meetings on Owera’s site plan review to construct a new events building to replace its events tent on its East Lake Road property. At the board’s previous Dec. 5 meeting, the board issued a request to Town CEO Roger Cook to interpret the town zoning code regarding Owera’s building request.
Cook’s report, issued Dec. 17, declared that under the code, as well as state DAM law, Owera meets the definition of a farm operation and that it is a “winery.” Cook stated that under both the town code and the DAM regulations, Owera has the right to construct farm buildings that contribute to production, preparation and marketing of their farm product. Also, based on DAM rules, Owera may hold functions, such as weddings, on their property to market their product, Cook wrote.
While stating that Owera may legally pursue new construction and hold events, Cook offered the caveat that DAM law allows for a case-by-case review by the town of any events held and nothing in his determination should be construed to limit the town’s review right. He also stated that nothing in his opinion allows Owera to build or create an “event center,” conference center, bar, restaurant or any other commercial use — it must abide by the farm winery restrictions under the DAM.
Cook’s basic finding that Owera is currently operating within town zoning laws did not sit well with Owera’s neighbors, who have been fighting against the winery’s holding of loud events for months, and one neighbor, Bryan Wendel, has appealed Cook’s decision to the town zoning board of appeals, calling it “totally flawed.” Wendel read his letter to the ZBA aloud to the planning board during the public comment period of the Dec. 19 special meeting.
In addition to Wendel, nearly one dozen other residents, mainly East Lake Road neighbors, also made comments continuing to question the legality of Owera’s plans, to declare the business an event center instead of a winery and to urge the planning board to deny the winery’s request for the new events building. Many of the neighbors quoted town and DAM laws in support of their arguments, and quoted a recent decision from the state liquor authority denying Owera’s request for a liquor license.
Attorney Laurel Eveleigh, of Canastota, also spoke to the board, saying she had been retained by “a group of concerned Cazenovia citizens” in this matter. She said the board’s apparent assumption that Owera’s “catering” operation has a right to exist and the must be worked around to the satisfaction of all parties is a flawed perspective. “There is no inevitability that this site plan has to be granted,” Eveleigh said. “This banquet hall and catering business is not a farm operation.”
She said that Owera attorney Antonio Caruso’s comments to the board both at meetings and in a recent letter stating that town zoning law is superceded by DAM laws and the winery can therefore act in any way they choose regarding construction and events is “so stunningly wrong” and “patently not true.” She urged the board to “take up the mantle of review on this,” deny the building application and let Owera appeal the decision to the state DAM if they choose.
Moynihan was the final public comment of the meeting, and told the board that for all of the talk and questions about the ultimate intentions of winery owners Peter and Nancy Muserlian — whether they intend to make Owera a simple farm winery or develop it into something much larger and commercial — the best information is to hear it from Peter Muserlian himself. She then played a clip of a short documentary about Owera Vineyards made by former Syracuse University student Andrew Hida in May 2013, in which Peter Muserlian says of the business possibilities of his East Lake Road property: “I said [to Nancy], you know, we could have a winery, an event center, do a spa, put a hotel…”
At the end of the public comments, planning board member Anastasia Urtz said she would like to hear what the ZBA says about Wendel’s appeal of Cook’s determination before the planning board votes on Owera’s application. Member Hugh Roszel said he agreed that would be “a good start.”
Planning board Chair Mike Palmer said the next ZBA meeting at which the appeal could be addressed is not until Jan. 27, which means the planning board will not be able to consider the ZBA’s decision, if they make one in January, until its February meeting. Basic then made a motion that the planning board continue its public hearing on Owera’s site plan review, which was approved unanimously by the board.
Palmer stated that while the planning board will continue to work on Owera’s application, the board will not vote on it until at least February.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.