Aug 21, 2013 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Is Owera Vineyards the farm winery it was proposed to be or has it turned into something larger, louder and more commercial than was originally approved by the town?
This is a question the Cazenovia Town Board is now directly addressing after multiple neighbors’ complaints about excessive noise, traffic and lighting have brought attention to the issue and have caused the town planning board chair and town codes officer to question whether Owera has turned into an events center it was never anticipated to become. It has also brought a visit to the winery from an official from the state department of agriculture and markets.
“We thought we were approving a winery … and what we ended up with was a banquet hall,” said Town Planning Board Chair Michael Palmer at the Aug. 12 town board meeting.
Nancy Muserlian, co-owner of Owera Vineyards, said her only comment was that Owera is looking at ways it can continue to be a good neighbor.
Owera Vineyards, located at 5276 East Lake Road, opened this past June with four acres of planted vines, a tasting room, event center and tented event facility. Owera currently produces 12 different wines, mostly from grapes grown at vineyards on Keuka Lake, and has won numerous awards.
According to planning board records, Owera is a winery that also offers itself as an event location. It had 12 weddings scheduled for this year and 25 already scheduled for 2014, said Kristie Fondario, Owera’s director of sales, during the winery’s grand opening event in June. Other events Owera holds are ones such as the Taste of Cazenovia, which it hosted on June 12.
Under the town planning board’s site plan approval for Owera in March 2011, Owera must stop all outdoor use at 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, although indoor use “may occur outside above proposed hours.” The winery has an event tent with wall flaps that can be opened or closed, and which may ultimately be the crux of a disagreement over whether it is or is not technically an “indoor structure.”
While issues have been raised about bright lights and excessive traffic from the vineyard, it’s the events — particularly the weddings — that Owera hosts every Friday and Saturday night that has its neighbors upset.
“It isn’t a vineyard; it’s a party place,” said John Hunter, who lives across the street from the entrance to Owera. “It’s a pretend vineyard. It’s not what the planning board approved.”
Hunter said every weekend the wedding music goes until at least 11 p.m. and is so loud every word sung or spoken into the microphone can be clearly heard and every bass-line of every song shakes and vibrates the windows of his house. Hunter also claims the lights leading down the driveway to Owera are excessively bright — like an airport runway.
Neighbor Berta Keeler, who also lives across the street from Owera, also finds the bright lights “very obnoxious,” and thinks the weekend noise is not only excessively loud but part of the winery’s philosophy of an apathy towards its neighbors’ concerns.
“They’re not a winery, they’re an event center. The vineyard is just a cover,” Keeler said. “I’m very disappointed in that. It could be not a bad thing, but they don’t care about their neighbors — its just business.”
John Clement, who lives next door to the winery at 5210 East Lake Road, has also been complaining about the noise from the winery since they opened. In fact, he raised concerns about the potential for excessive noise from Owera events during town planning board hearings in 2010 and 2011, but, he says, his concerns fell on deaf ears.
“Now, ever since they opened on June 14, there’s been nothing but noise, music, laughter, voices. It’s so loud you cannot sit outside, you can’t go to bed early on Friday or Saturday nights — it goes until 11 p.m.,” Clement said. “It’s a big change thinking you’re getting a vineyard as a neighbor and you get an event center.”
Clement said he has called the police three times to complain about the noise, and he knows other neighbors have as well, but it never stops until at least 11 p.m. Clement also sent a letter of complaint to the planning board chair on June 17 asking if there was any variance issued he was not aware of that would allow Owera to hold events beyond the 10 p.m. limit stated in the planning board approval for the project.
“It’s up to the town to get this under control,” Clement said, adding that, as far as he can tell, Owera is violating its operational agreement with the town as stipulated in the planning board records. “No one is policing it.”
The neighbors have been asking the town for assistance in alleviating their concerns, and recently have started circulating petitions complaining about the noise and the lights to present to the town board asking for relief.
Town board to intervene
At the town board’s Aug. 12 regular monthly meeting, the Owera issue was discussed at length by the board, Planning Board Chair Palmer and Town Codes Officer Roger Cook.
“So far, we’ve had a fair number of complaints about traffic, lighting and noise,” Cook told the board. He said numerous residents have looked through the town planning board files concerning the winery’s construction approval and feel the town “has not lived up to” its job in holding Owera responsible for following the conditions set upon its operations under its site plan approval by the planning board.
Neighbors have complained about the lights leading down Owera’s driveway being too bright, pointing up rather than down and being beyond the planning board’s original strictures. Neighbors have also complained about cars parking along East and North Lake roads when the Owera parking lot is full. Cook said co-owner Peter Muserlian has agreed to put in new, dimmer lights that are dark-sky compliant and is also in the process of adding another parking lot to the property which will resolve any parking overflow.
These and other issues — not including the noise complaints — have been addressed in a cooperative and responsive manner by Owera’s owners, said both Cook and Palmer. Both men also said, however, that Owera’s owners have not been cooperative regarding resolving the noise complaints.
“It is loud; it is objectionable,” Cook said. He said he, Palmer and Bob Somers of the Agricultural Protection Unit of New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets went to the East Lake Road neighborhood around Owera a few weeks ago to listen to a noise level test, which they found extremely loud and audible throughout the neighborhood.
Palmer said he received a call from a neighbor on a recent weekend night and he drove out to East Lake Road to listen to the music from an Owera wedding. “You could hear every word being sung and feel the base. It was loud,” he told the board.
Somers, of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, was called by the town because a farm winery such as Owera falls under its jurisdiction for certain aspects of executing and carrying into effect state laws regarding agricultural products production and processing. The department is the ultimate authority on what is and is not appropriate on agriculture-related sites throughout New York state.
A call to Somers by the Cazenovia Republican was not returned.
During their meeting with Somers, Cook and Palmer said Somers told them that the town should address the complaints first using “every applicable avenue” within town law before the Department of Agriculture and Markets steps in to the issue. He said ultimately it was up to the town to “make the next move,” Cook said.
Cook said the town has no noise ordinance to enforce a sound curfew on weekends, and when they discussed the music with Peter Muserlian he said he thought the noise was supposed to end at 11 p.m., not 10 p.m. Another issue, said both Cook and Palmer, is the definition of an indoor structure, and whether the Owera events tent qualifies as one. Cook said he was certain Owera would argue the tent is a structure and therefore the music can go on inside the tent past 10 p.m.
Both Palmer and Town Attorney John Langey said the town planning board never intended during its site plan review process of the winery that the tent to be considered a structure or be used as a musical venue, specifically because the board was trying to limit the amount of noise impinging on the neighbors.
Palmer said that during their recent meeting with Somers, he stated that Ag and Markets does not consider a tent a structure.
“Nobody thinks a tent is a building,” said Town Councilor Pat Race. Race said it is clear in the winery’s site plan approval that all noise must stop at 10 p.m. and Owera must be respect its neighbors and stop at 10 p.m. — “or we will make them stop.” The rest of the board agreed.
Nancy Muserlian said “At this point, Owera vineyards is looking at all ways they can continue to be good neighbors in the community.”
She would not offer any specific comment on whether or not the winery will follow the 10 p.m. noise curfew as written in the winery’s original site plan approval and as discussed by the town board.
Langey said that the state department of Ag and Markets “is now keenly aware” of the issue of noise by Owera and they have told the town it has the power to regulate the issue. He said the town board could pass a noise ordinance or create a local law to require a permit for any gathering over a certain number of people as ways to address this. He said Cook is working with Owera on the issue and if they do not comply then Cook will issue them a citation, “and we’re in court.”
“I’ve talked to their attorney and he knows that’s the route we’re going to take if necessary,” Langey said.
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.