Little Compton Ag Trust trims vineyard concerts
More than halves number sought
LITTLE COMPTON — Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard's lawyers left last Wednesday's Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust (Ag Trust) meeting with recommended approval for fewer than half the concerts they had sought — 14 instead of 31.
The crowd jammed into Town Hall council chambers cheered the unanimous vote of the five trustees present after an hour-long debate on a motion, put forth at the outset of the meeting by Chairman Bill Richmond.
"I move that [the Ag Trust] provide written comment" that the vineyard 2017 entertainment license application does not meet the "terms and conditions of the deed to development rights due to the excessive number of proposed events," Mr. Richmond stated in his motion.
"The number of proposed events represents a level of activity of a commercial entertainment venue, and does not constitute an agricultural use," Mr. Richmond's motion stated.
"In the judgment" of the Ag Trust — said Mr. Richmond in his motion — "one weekly concert during the summer season for a total of 14 concert events would meet the terms and conditions" of the conservation easement, "provided that all events meet all applicable state and local laws and regulations."
Presumably these would include compliance with zoning requirements, which could be a tough standard to meet. The council, before it can issue an entertainment license, is required to secure "an opinion" from the town zoning official that the proposed entertainment activities "are compliant" with town zoning ordinances. Last Nov. 13, town Zoning Official George Medeiros wrote an opinion that weddings and concerts at the vineyard "are not accessory uses to, and required for, the operation of the principal use [a winery business] and therefore are not allowed."
At the Ag Trust meeting, the vineyard had sought confirmation from the trustees that the 31 concert events it was proposing between the first of June and Labor Day, were consistent with the terms of deed restrictions governing the use of the land. The 31 events included 14 concerts on Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m., 14 on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., and three on Saturdays for three hours each.
The vineyard estimated that its activities could draw up to 700 people and 317 cars for a single event (saying Thursdays are the best attended).
The deed or easement restrictions generally requires that activities or uses of the land be agricultural or related in nature, and be consistent with "conservation values."
Last week's Ag Trust meeting was a necessary precursor to an upcoming meeting of the Town Council on Thursday, May 11 at 7 p.m., at which time the town council will consider whether or not to grant the vineyard an entertainment license. The licensing ordinance requires the council to seek confirmation from the Ag Trust, which holds a conservation easement over the the vineyard land —that the entertainment uses are "fully consistent" with the conservation easement.
Debate gets heated
Only the lawyer for Dionysus Acquisition LLC (the name of the vineyard corporate entity), Nicole Benjamin, spoke on behalf of the vineyard, and no one from the public spoke favoring the vineyard’s proposal. (Never in the two or so years of proceedings about the vineyard’s license has vineyard owner Carolyn Rafaelian publicly appeared or spoken in town on behalf of the vineyard, one observer said.)
"On two prior occasions this board has determined that concerts are in fact permitted under the deed," Ms. Benjamin said. "Concerts help promote the sale of wine — wine from the grapes that are grown on the vineyard. You don't have to conclude it's strictly an agricultural use."
"There is not authority in this board to limit the number of events," she said. That belongs to the licensing authority, the town council. "There's nothing before the board to indicate the number of concerts relates to agricultural uses," she said.
"We're promoting open space," Ms. Benjamin said, "by allowing people to enjoy the open space of that land."
Vineyard neighbor Jim Tumber said that the fields now used for parking were previously growing hay. He bought his home next door a few years ago.
"My office is in the shed behind the house. Within a year of buying the place, I installed a giant picture window and bought a pair of binoculars and moved my office there. That's where I work. I enjoyed watching deer and turkeys and fisher cats and hawks all the time."
Now the lot behind is used for parking, he said, "and is loaded with cars — honking, shouting to each other, lights flashing, people arguing.
"Whatever they're doing, so long as it translates into the sale of wine, it's okay," said Christopher D'Ovidio, a lawyer representing several families who live nearby and object to the concerts. "It could be a gas station, or a casino" selling the wine, he said.
An area the size of two football fields would be dedicated for parking for the summer, and could not be cultivated, he said, and parking is not agricultural.
"You have all the power to deny," Mr. D'Ovidio told the Ag Trust trustees. "I would also submit to you, you have the support of the community. If you have to go to court and spend money to bring this out-of-town commercialization, culture vulture entity to heel — they're all with you."
In presenting it's case to the Ag Trust, the vineyard had submitted to the trustees several hundred pages of documentation, including a 30-page memorandum accompanied by 25 exhibits.
In an April 29, 2016, letter to the town, John Tarantino, the lawyer authoring the memorandum to the Ag Trust, said the vineyard "will avail itself of all available legal recourse" if it does not secure the license, and that Dionysus will seek to rescind the deed if "it is prevented from exercising its rights under the deed."
Just before the vote was taken at the end of meeting, Trustee David Wechsler held aloft the thick packet of materials.
"The insults that we get from the Sakonnet Vineyard are not very pleasant to take," he said. "It's not very polite to get these documents on Monday night before our [Wednesday] meeting. From my point of view it's a mess," he said, noting that there are contradictions in the materials submitted.
"A comment here says the Ag Trust was arbitrary and capricious." Mr. Wechsler said. He then read aloud the definition of the word "capricious."
"Let me tell you," he said, "this committee is not capricious. It is a very serious committee and we take both sides extremely seriously.”
At several points during the debate, objections were made to the idea of a big corporation, coming into Little Compton, and disturbing the peace and tranquility of the community.
"A final point I would like to make," said Ms. Benjamin, at the close of her comments, "is the issue of this [vineyard, Dionysus] being a large corporation. Respectfully it is not. Dionysus qualifies as a small business ..." … the rest of her comment was drowned out by laughter from the audience.