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North Fork residents, wineries coexist amid tensions

Phil Schmitt, president of Philip A. Schmitt &

Phil Schmitt, president of Philip A. Schmitt & Son Inc., is shown in this 2012 file photo. Credit: Heather Walsh

Most weekdays, Riverhead farmer Phil Schmitt has no problem taking a tractor onto the winding, single-lane Sound Avenue to work his distant fields. But on the weekends, watch out.

"You're almost taking your life in your hands," said Schmitt, who has farmed the region for 35 years and remembers when there were more tractors than cars. No more.

"Sometimes, the things these drivers do are unbelievable," he said.

The North Fork's evolution from farm region to agritainment venue combining agriculture with music and other events came into stark relief July 18 when a limousine carrying eight young women attempted a U-turn and was hit broadside by a pickup truck driven by a Southold marina owner, who was charged with DWI.

Amid the funerals and memorials for the four women who were killed, authorities are investigating the crash. And the North Fork has collectively gasped.

"It's just a sadness we feel for all the families involved," said Sal Diliberto, owner of a Cutchogue winery that bears his name and is located a few miles from the accident site. "I wouldn't think about anything right now other than that."

The tragedy has reopened a debate about wineries, and now breweries and even distilleries, as destination venues on the North Fork roadways. It also has exposed tensions between the wineries and residents.

"Having a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine under a shade tree is a great thing, but just keep it to that," said Ray Huntington, 82, of Cutchogue. "We have a thing called a town code, an agreement on behavior to control how wineries should operate. I think it should be nudged back to the centerlines that have been drawn."

Long Island's more than 50 wineries lure 1.4 million visitors a year, according to the Long Island Wine Council, an industry group. That steady growth is a direct result of efforts over the past decade to draw more visitors through musical and corporate events, weddings and festivals. This week, Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead is hosting a two-day event called Freak Out Let's Dance!, featuring musicians including Beck, Pharrell Williams, Chaka Khan and Duran Duran.

It pays the bills

The higher-volume traffic helps pay the bills, following lean times after the 2008 recession.

"That challenge is always going to be there, how to make money," said Ron Goerler, owner of Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport, which attracts visitors with wine, music, oysters and specially baked breads. But "it's not a party atmosphere we're providing here."

"There's no peace anymore," said Bert Bilunas, who lives down the block from Martha Clara. He said he's more perturbed by buses and limos than the wineries, though he regrets he can't make a left turn onto Sound Avenue most weekends. Then too, Martha Clara Vineyards has given him and dozens of other neighbors eight free tickets to the concert. Tickets are $137 each.

Jim McNamara and his wife, Pat, live in mostly peaceful coexistence with one of Long Island's first wineries, now Castello di Borghese, in Cutchogue. The music isn't too loud, most events stop at 5 p.m., and the McNamaras sometimes take visitors there themselves.

Yet, Jim McNamara wonders just how many drivers would pass a breath analyzer test most weekends. "This place is one drinking mess between the wineries and the breweries," he said.

Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, said a focus on agritainment was an outgrowth of the recession, but wineries associated with the council are working to dial back the number of events.

"We have been watching the increase in traffic for quite some time," he said. "It's been a good thing and helpful to local economy, but clearly there are strains on the local infrastructure, including the roadways."

Working on image

At the same time, the industry has been working to refine its image. "While we were focused on events and activities during and after the recession, we will be shifting focus to attract a more educated wine aficionado and consumer," Bate said.

David Calone, chairman of the Suffolk Planning Council, said the agency has launched a traffic task force focusing on the North Fork. Following the limo tragedy, he said, the group expanded the scope to include safety issues, he said.

Riverhead and Southold towns, where most of the wineries are located, spent much of the past half-decade trying to find a balance between allowing the wineries to grow and making sure locals weren't overrun by rock concerts, dance-club venues and sheer traffic volume.

"The roads were never built for the amount of traffic that traverses them," Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said.

When a winery or farm seeks to hold a large event, it must apply for a special chapter 90 permit that requires approval by the town board. The winery or farm must pay for police and traffic control.

"It's a very difficult balance," Walter said. "I don't see the mechanism that is going to stop the volume."

Some neighbors have long complained of limousines and buses making dangerous, multipoint turns at intersections where even left turns can be treacherous. Some wineries have banned limos and buses.

"We are trying to build a lifestyle, to help people enjoy themselves," Goerler said of Jamesport. "We are trying to get people to slow down."

Kathy LeMorzellec, president of Palmer Vineyards, which asks that limos and buses make appointments to visit, said the industry is willing to compromise if it means creating a safer experience.

"I think I speak for most of the wineries when I say we need the volume [of visitors], but we don't want volume if something bad is going to happen," she said.

Some wineries already have found that bigger crowds aren't necessarily the answer. Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue drew criticism five years ago when it began hosting a mini-Woodstock music festival called NoFo. In the years since, its owners have shut down the tasting room, and more recently the winery.

Earlier this year, Roanoke Vineyard in Riverhead announced it was closing its tasting room to everyday traffic, and focusing on wine making and select customers. Owner Rich Pisacano at the time noted "a tsunami in tourism on Long Island's North Fork, largely focused on the region's wine industry."

Drivers see problem

Even limo drivers recognize the problem.

"You can't make a U-turn with that kind of vehicle," said Peter Dionysatos, owner of Worldwide Limousines and North Fork Wine Tours of Massapequa, whose eight cars have roamed those roads since 2006. His drivers are barred from making left-hand turns on the roadways, he said.

But even after the accident last month, his eight limos, SUVs and buses are booked for North Fork tours for weeks. For many of his customers, from as far away as Brooklyn, Westchester County and New Jersey, the wine trail is a destination like Manhattan club hopping, and maybe even hipper.

"Years ago I used to work in the city a lot, doing weddings, bar hopping and clubs," Dionysatos said. "In the past couple of years we've changed that. We now do the wine tours."

He gets $600 to shuttle eight passengers around the North Fork for eight hours, and focuses on the larger venues, such as Vineyard 48 and Baiting Hollow Farm Winery, which don't reject limos. Renting a bus for up to 40 people can cost as much as $1,500, he said.

Brittany Galla-Helm, a former Wading River resident who lives in New Jersey, knows the distinctions between the classic jeans-and-flannel winery and the more trendy venues such as Vineyard 48. Her sister and friends arranged a bachelorette party for her at that Cutchogue winery in May 2014. She remembers drinking a sangria-like beverage not from a wineglass but a child's beach pail.

"It was more like a party scene, a club scene. There were bouncers," she said. "We didn't see any parents tasting. We didn't see any cheese."

The Monday after the crash, the Vineyard 48 tasting room was open for business, but there were no patrons inside. A man who said he was not the owner declined to comment and asked a reporter to leave.

Bate said the wine council has been working to address the issue of crowded roadways and driving. It has been testing shuttle buses on the most popular wine trails and busy weekends, and hopes federal funding can be obtained to help make them permanent during high season.

Call for a review

Jim Waters, a wine council vice president who drives the Cutchogue roads to his Waters Crest Winery each day, said it also may be time to review traffic patterns and make changes on Route 48.

"Something should have been done at that intersection three, four, five years ago," he said of Depot Lane where the fatal accident occurred, noting that there's only a flashing yellow light and no sign barring U-turns. Last week, steel poles and other equipment were at the scene as traffic officials prepared to install a stop light.

Winery owners note that it's not just wine that draws people to the North Fork. Greenport is a bustling summer hub, fed by a busy ferry port, and there are regular festivals and farm events throughout the region.

Still, Waters said, "We always want things to be safe. People use the limo services because they don't want to drink and drive."

He and others note that local police monitor dangerous intersections and issue tickets when drivers violate the laws but he knows police enforcement has its limitations. "We need people to slow down when they come out here," he said.


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