Jan 06, 2014 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
For the second time in just over four weeks, the New York State Liquor Authority has denied an application by Owera Vineyards for both its own liquor license and its ability to use third-party catering permits to provide food and alcohol at winery events.
Like the authority’s first denial on Dec. 2, its commissioners specifically cited the numerous neighbor complaints and alleged deteriorating quality of life issues in the neighborhood as the reason for their denial; unlike the December decision, the authority’s Jan. 3 meeting was attended and addressed by Owera owner Nancy Muserlian and her attorney, as well as two of the winery’s East Lake Road neighbors.
While this issue of Owera’s negative impact on its neighbors due to its high-volume, late-hour weddings has been ongoing for the past six months, and both the neighbors and Owera’s owners and attorneys have been making basically the same statements and arguments before various municipal boards, at the Jan. 3 SLA hearing both Nancy Muserlian and her attorney, John Sidd, made statements, admissions and promises about past and future winery conduct that are new to the record. Muserlian, in fact, declared the ongoing controversy with her neighbors to be such a “nightmare” that she is prepared to change the winery’s entire business and marketing plan to eschew wedding events, perhaps entirely.
“I am here to tell you after this season I am happy to change the focus of the business,” Muserlian told the commissioners. “I’m happy to change my business because given the concerns here, really, I honestly do not want to do this. … I am in the process of writing letters to the brides and there will be some major changes. And as I said I really hope they cancel.”
Owera Vineyards opened in June 2013 and began holding numerous events, mostly weddings, in their event tent on Friday and Saturday nights. Under the town planning board’s regulations for the winery’s operations, all outdoor events must end at 10 p.m. although indoor events may go longer. The winery’s event tent has been at the crux of a disagreement between Owera and the town as to whether the tent is an indoor structure or an outdoor structure. The winery and its attorney, Antonio E. Caruso, of the Syracuse law firm Menter, Rudin & Trivelpiece, have consistently declared the tent to be an indoor structure and therefore events can go beyond 10 p.m. The town has disagreed and even issued a violation to the winery for its excessive noise operating beyond 10 p.m.
Owera Vineyards applied for a liquor license as a “catering establishment” this past July to allow them to “provide liquor, wine and beer for consumption for an assemblage for a particular function (i.e. retirement dinner, wedding reception, private party) to which the general public is not admitted,” according to State Liquor Authority information. During 2013, Owera operated its events through third-party catering licenses, which allow a company that does not have a liquor license to hire a licensed caterer to provide the food and alcohol at the event. Owera has been catering most of its events through the Lincklaen House.
At the SLA’s Dec. 2 hearing, the commissioners ruled to deny Owera a liquor license and that while the 15 caterer’s permits already approved for 2014 should remain authorized, no further caterer’s permits would be issued to Owera. Both of these decisions were based on the number of neighborhood complaints and quality of life issues, the commissioners said.
In his Dec. 26 letter to the SLA requesting the Jan. 3 reconsideration hearing, Sidd, also an attorney with the Syracuse law firm Menter, Rudin & Trivelpiece, stated that Owera allowed its 2013 events to go past 10 p.m. because the tent was considered to be indoors. However, he wrote, “Owera Vineyards is now committed to limiting the operational hours of the Event Center for all future special events to 10 p.m. in accordance with the outside operations schedule.”
During the Jan. 3 SLA hearing, Sidd repeated this change in Owera outlook and he told the commissioners, “We are subject to site plan approval. We apologize. We did go to 11 p.m. We thought we were indoors. We were mistaken.”
After extensive questioning by the commissioners on Owera operations, Muserlian said that not only would her winery limit events to 10 p.m., but there will no longer be any outdoor music (outside the tent), no more live bands will be allowed, all amplified music will be controlled by Owera staff — although she later said during the hearing that she will not allow amplified music at all — and she will even move away from doing weddings and instead focus on educational and corporate daytime events.
“There will be some major changes,” she said.
Muserlian also presented to the SLA a petition containing 177 signatures of people who support the winery and want it to make its business work through cooperation with the town government. She said 17 of those signers live in proximity to the winery.
Owera neighbors Deb Shephard Moynihan and Berta Keeler also attended the SLA’s Jan. 3 meeting, although they participated remotely from an SLA office in Albany since they could not make it into New York City due to the hazardous weather conditions that day. Prior to the hearing, Moynihan said she and about 20 others had sent letters to the SLA to rebut Owera’s request for reconsideration.
“We have had multiple letters already sent, but sometimes it’s just a message you need to deliver in person,” Moynihan said, describing her decision to drive through a snowstorm to attend the hearing.
Moynihan and Keeler told the commissioners of the lighting and noise issues and the deteriorating quality of life they feel has occurred in the neighborhood. They said that despite Muserlian’s and Sidd’s claims that Owera immediately took action to address neighbors’ concerns, Owera in fact ignored the neighbors and the issues remain unresolved.
Keeler and Moynihan told the authority that they too had a petition to present, which had garnered more than 100 signatures in the two days since it had been posted online on Jan. 1.
Offered a chance for rebuttal, Sidd said the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has made it “excruciatingly clear” that wineries are allowed to hold events on their premises in order to promote their farm product. He said wineries all over the Finger Lakes region hold weddings and events, just like Owera.
“But I don’t have any complaints from them,” Rosen said. “I don’t have people driving in a snowstorm maybe a couple of hours because they’re so upset, and their lives have been so disrupted. That’s the difference here.”
Muserlian then apologized for the tent and said, “Ag and Markets considered it a structure, and that’s why we thought we could go until 11 p.m. I’m new at this, just give me a chance.” She added that the neighbors do not simply want the events to stop but, “I really feel the next step is they really, truly want us out of business.”
After an 11-minute executive session, the SLA commissioners returned and declared their intention to uphold their previous denial of Owera’s liquor license application.
“The extension and the noise and the lighting that occurs there has to be something that will be contained and may not intrude on your neighbors’ quality of life,” said Commissioner Jeanique Green.
Rosen agreed but said he added the caveat that if Owera received approval to build the proposed sound-proofed event building currently being considered by the town planning board, “you may come back with a new application and I would certainly consider that because that would allay my concerns in respect to events being held in what is essentially a tent and the noise emanating therefrom.”
Sidd then asked Rosen the status of Owera applying for third-party catering permits, as was mentioned at the Dec. 2 hearing, and if that would be allowed. Rosen said that would be on a case-by-case basis but the SLA would take into account all the concerns that have been raised against Owera. “So I wouldn’t count on it,” Rosen said.
Muserlian thanked the board and said “We’ll do just fine with our wine, cider and beer.”
Moynihan and Keeler said in a written statement to the Cazenovia Republican that they were pleased by the decision.
“We applaud the SLA for upholding their previous denial of the catering license and catering permits for non-farm-related events,” they wrote. “The owners made many concessions on how they plan to operate their business on a go-forward basis. As these concessions have not been noted before in any town meeting or public hearing, we were pleasantly surprised to hear them but remain skeptical as to the owners’ true intent.”
Keeler and Moynihan also said they wanted to reiterate that the neighbors do not oppose a farm winery. “We have made it very clear that we are not looking to shut them down or have them lose their farm winery license. We want them to operate their business in a manner consistent with the way they presented themselves to the town, the county and the state, and with the approvals that they were given by the town, county and state,” Moynihan said.
The State Liquor Authority’s denial of liquor and catering permits to Owera now means that the winery can sell only its own wines at its events and nobody else’s, as well as no beer or hard liquor. The limiting of the caterer’s license means that Owera’s event caterer can only sell outside alcoholic beverages at those 15 pre-approved events in the event tent in 2014 (Owera has a separate license for its tasting facility) and no others.
The SLA decision does not affect the ability of Owera to hire outside caterers to bring in and serve food at events, according to the Madison County Department of Health. However, Owera currently is not allowed to serve food at any events in its event tent in 2014 because it does not have an operating permit from the department of health. That permit was not re-issued by the department for this year because the winery has two outstanding violations from the department of health: one for illegally improving their water system and one for illegally drilling a well, which have not yet been resolved, said Madison County Director of Environmental Health Geoff Snyder.
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.