Nov 11, 2013 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
After a nearly two-hour meeting and public hearing last week, the Cazenovia Town Planning Board told Owera Vineyards owner Peter Muserlian that it will not approve his request to build a new events building on his East Lake Road property unless and until the state Department of Agriculture and Markets makes a determination that the building — and the numerous proposed, year-round events that will be held inside it — actually have anything to do with farming and with promoting Owera’s wines, as the state DAM laws say they must.
“We cannot support this at all,” Planning Board Chair Michael Palmer said at the Nov. 7 meeting after hearing an update on Muserlian’s proposed building plans. “Personally, I don’t see how a conference center sells wine … I don’t buy that this is part of the winery. And without some firm direction from Ag and Markets, I cannot support this.”
Planning board Member Anastasia Urtz agreed with Palmer but took it in a different direction, saying she does not believe the planning board even has the authority to approve such an events building, because it has no “farming” use the way the building, being in an agricultural district, must. “I think [Owera] is seeking a use variance,” which is the purview of the town board, not the planning board, she said.
Owera owner Peter Muserlian, who spoke very little during the meeting, said that he must have a facility in order to promote his wine, and that the department of Agriculture and Markets allows him to do “just about anything” as long as he is promoting his wine.
Muserlian’s attorney, Antonio E. Caruso, also said the winery can do whatever it wants, regardless of the neighbors’ complaints or the town’s laws, saying, “Because we are in an agricultural district the town’s rules don’t apply to us.”
This belief in the legally untouchable nature of Owera Vineyards, as held by its owners Peter and Nancy Muserlian, as well as their refusal to accept or follow town zoning laws or change their operating practices in response to a litany of neighbors’ complaints about excessive noise and lighting, has led this issue to go on for the past six months. It also has resulted in the issuance of a town zoning violation to Owera by the town codes enforcement officer.
The noise levels at Owera from its weekend events have been an issue with the neighbors since the winery opened in June and with the town since the town board addressed the neighbors’ complaints at its regular August meeting. Under the site plan for the winery approved by the town planning board, all outdoor events at Owera are required to either end or be held inside a building after 10 p.m. specifically to address the issue of noise bothering its neighbors. Owera has been allowing its weddings and special events to go until 11 p.m., and, according to neighbors, sometimes until 1 a.m., in its non-permanent events tent, which has vinyl flaps that can be rolled up and down. The winery maintains that the tent is a structure and therefore their weddings inside the tent can go as long as they want.
In September, Town Codes Enforcement Officer Roger Cook issued a town zoning law violation to the winery for its excessive noise levels after 10 p.m. The citation did not stop Owera from holding its late-night events.
At the Sept. 8 town board meeting, Muserlian announced his plans to build a permanent event building in an effort to reduce the noise being heard beyond the winery’s grounds. Muserlian, along with his landscape architect, architect, sound engineering expert and Owera attorney appeared before the town planning board on Oct. 3 to provide the board with project information and to receive feedback before submitting its formal application for the project.
The building proposal presented to the planning board in October was based off the footprint of the current tent but included an additional wing and storage area; a seating capacity for 300 people; two doorways instead of the current four, both with vestibules; self-closing doors; and triple-glazed windows at a smaller size than the current tent. The walls will be 2-by-8 construction with staggered 2-by-6 studs within; have 6 inches of sound insulation, wood siding on top of plywood, noise barriers on inside space with seven-eighths-inch resilient channels to insulate sound. The noise levels heard at the closest property line to the winery is expected to be 60 decibels.
The new building would have events year-round, versus the current six-month event season with the tent, and the current outdoor bar would be brought inside to help reduce outside noise levels, Muserlian said.
Planning board members had numerous questions and concerns for the Owera team at the October meeting, including verification of the noise reductions expected from the building, the creation of house rules that would require Owera to control an event’s duration and level of music and the expected potential uses for the new building’s additional wing. The Owera team said at that time they would respond to those particular concerns and submit its complete site plan application to the board before its regularly scheduled Nov. 7 meeting.
Last week’s meeting
At the Nov. 7 meeting, which more than 50 town residents attended, Owera’s landscape architect, Joanne Gagliano, reviewed the proposed project and said Muserlian’s project team had submitted its sound engineering report, an updated traffic study and was working on the lighting issue but had to return the upgraded lights it previously ordered. She said the full site plan, as submitted before the Nov. 7 meeting, had added three acres of vineyards to be planted at the winery, and the new wing would increase the total seating capacity of the building to 380 people, not the 300 that was stated in October. Muserlian said that both the sound engineers hired by Owera and by the town agreed on the expected noise reduction levels as proposed in the plan.
In response to a question from Palmer concerning the size of the proposed building, Gagliano said it would be 2,000 square-feet, not including the new storage areas.
“So it’s not quite 50 percent bigger than the tent — but considerably bigger,” Palmer said.
Caruso gave a lengthy explanation of the background of the winery, saying the controversy “over what we are” has been based on misinformation and misunderstanding. He said the winery, which is in an agricultural district in the town and is subject to state Department of Agriculture and Markets rules and regulations, is not a “farm operation” but is a “startup farm operation.” Its farm product must ultimately be created from at least 51 percent of on-farm produced grapes, and Owera is currently working towards that goal. It currently has about three acres of vines planted, proposes to add three more acres and is currently looking to purchase more vineyard property off-site, Caruso said. Under the DAM law, a startup farm operation is offered a “reasonable” period of time to get fully up and running before being subject to certain of the “farm operations” requirements.
Under the state DAM law, a “farm operation” is allowed to hold weddings, receptions, parties and special events on-site as long as the purpose of the event is to market the operations product and the income from the event does not exceed the per-event sales of the wines for that event. The law also states that on-farm marketing of an operation’s products (such as by holding events) are allowed as long as the annual sales of such products do not exceed the annual sales of the farm’s wine production.
Caruso said calling Owera Vineyards an “event location” is “far from the truth” and that Owera “actually makes very little money” from its weddings and other events — events which are intended solely to promote Owera’s wines. He said Owera has sold 20,000 bottles of wine so far this year, and the winery’s intent is not to be an event venue but “to grow and be one of the best-known wines in New York state.”
Board Member Anastasia Urtz, who works in the events business, questioned Owera’s ability to stay within the events income regulations stated in the DAM law. She said Owera’s 20,000 bottles, multiplied by the average cost of $15 per bottle totals $300,000 in revenue. “Up against 18 weddings [this year] — and I know what catering costs — and you’re selling more catering than wine,” she said.
“Not a chance,” Muserlian retorted.
Urtz asked Caruso if Owera had submitted written records to the DAM proving that its events-based income does not exceed its wine-based income, to which the attorney, after some back-and-forth, said, “No; no document exists.”
Caruso said at one point in the meeting that Muserlian understands that the winery must operate within the DAM guidelines, and if the DAM does not approve of how the winery has operated, “then we have a big problem.”
The only way the DAM will actually rule on the legitimacy of Owera’s actions, according to the law and as stated Nov. 7 by both the Owera attorney and town attorney John Langey, is if Owera feels it is being “unreasonably restricted” in its farm operations by the town and appeals to the DAM for a decision as to who is correct: the town or the winery.
Owera has not made such an appeal to the DAM at this time, and Caruso did not indicate during the meeting whether Muserlian would take that action or not.
By the end of the meeting, Palmer declared that while the town planning board has supported and cooperated with Owera since the beginning of its existence and believed the creation of the vineyard would benefit the town, the board “never anticipated” the zoning issues and violations, disagreements and neighborhood outrage over the business.
“I just don’t see us going forward without approval from Ag and Markets,” he said.
Palmer also said that if the DAM does give its approval to Owera’s current business plan as being within the law, then the planning board would seek restrictions on the size of the new building (to be no bigger than the current events tent), the hours of operation, the number of allowed events per year and the amount of noise produced during an event.
“I think this is going in the wrong direction,” Palmer said of Owera’s proposal. “You’re going bigger, almost one-third … [and] we think this building should have something to do with farm operations.”
Muserlian said he would supply the planning board with the information it requires “so you understand [the project] and you approve this.”
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.