Neighbors decry winery plan to host events

St. James resident Michael Giannattasio lives next to St. James resident Michael Giannattasio lives next to Whisper Vineyards and is among those opposing a special exception permit from the town that would allow the winery to hold events at its Edgewood Avenue location. (April 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Michael Giannattasio moved to Long Island from Astoria, Queens, more than 40 years ago because he was "always a country boy at heart."

Living next to Whisper Vineyards in St. James seemed ideal to Giannattasio, 70, who said he can see the farm's barn from his yard. But he fears the winery's plan to host outdoor events such as wedding receptions may upend his bucolic life.

"This is going to add to the traffic; there's going to be loud music on the weekends," he said. "I don't want to live next to a catering house."

The winery, part of Borella's Farm Stand on Edgewood Avenue, is seeking a special exception permit from the Smithtown Town board that would let the 53-acre farm host weddings and corporate events. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the town senior center, 420 Middle Country Rd.

Neighbors worry that their concerns will be ignored.

Councilman Thomas McCarthy said at a recent town board meeting that he believes the board will approve the permit.

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"This sounds like a done deal," Giannattasio said. "We might not have a chance."

Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said he is undecided about the vineyard's permit application. "I always hear the case before I make the decision," he said in an interview.

Town Planning Director Frank DeRubeis said the permit would restrict events at the vineyard. Attendance would be capped at 320 people, street parking would be banned, and music would be barred after 9 p.m., he said.

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The vineyard's attorney, Vincent Trimarco of Smithtown, has questioned whether the farm needs the permit, saying it is exempt under the state agriculture and markets law.

Trimarco said in an interview that the farm owners -- Stephen Gallagher, his wife, Laura, and her sister Barbara Perotta -- are not sure the attendance limit is realistic.

According to state law, Whisper Vineyards would have to submit documentation showing that winery events are held to sell its products "and not to gain admission fees or rental income."

Trimarco and the farm's owners met on April 12 with DeRubeis, Councilman Robert Creighton and other town officials to iron out differences. They agreed to ask state agriculture officials for a commentary on the dispute.

In an interview, DeRubeis said the farm should share its financial records with the town if it is exempt from the permit.

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Creighton, who favors granting the permit, said he doesn't believe the town is entitled to see the farm's records.

"In my view, the vineyard was caught in between," he said. "It is not our business how much money the vineyard is going to make."

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