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Courtesy of Joe Defrancesco

Winery Plans Meet with Questions, Opposition at Middletown Hearing

MIDDLETOWN – At a public hearing Wednesday night, neighbors of the first proposed farm winery in Middletown questioned why a commercial business, and the traffic and noise that would come with it, would be allowed in their quiet, residential neighborhood.

Joe DeFrancesco – who is proposing to turn his 7.3 acre property on Miner Street in the Westfield neighborhood of Middletown into a farm winery that he said could host small events – said he was willing to work to address the concerns raised by his neighbors and members of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission. 

But his promises did not appear to sway either before the public hearing was continued to the commission’s next meeting. Commission Chair Thom Pattavina asked DeFrancesco to take the time to address comments from town staff about waste management, traffic, lights, proposed activities and hours, among other concerns.

Residents of Miner Street and Sachem Drive near the proposed winery said they moved to the neighborhood and invested in their homes because they understood it to be a quiet, private, residential neighborhood. 

Bringing in a farm winery – allowed by new regulations the state legislature and Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved last year – would bring in a commercial business that they didn’t sign up to live next to, they said.

Miner Street is a narrow, tree-lined road that residents say is already treacherous, especially when drivers use it to bypass frequent accidents on Interstate 91 – speeding down the winding road.

Kate Dombowski, who lives next to the proposed winery, pulled records of crashes on Miner Street over the past five years. There were an average of five crashes a year, of which about half caused injuries that required medical help. Increased traffic from a farm winery would make the situation even more dangerous, she said.

“If people are intoxicated, or even buzzed driving down our road, what is that going to do?” Dombowski asked.

The neighbors also worried about noise from weddings and catered events of up to 150 people, which DeFrancesco listed as possible uses on his application. The shape of the land creates a sort of natural amphitheater, Dombowski said – and several neighbors said they can clearly hear sporting events at the Moody School a mile away because of it.

Aside from being bothered by loud gatherings, neighbors said they would lose the privacy of their own homes as visitors to the winery could see directly into their yards and homes.

“We put our life savings into our oasis,” Dombowski said. “Now, when my husband and I want to relax with our friends and family, there are going to be people from the public gawking over at us.”

Another neighbor, Robert Halligan said he couldn’t believe the commission was even considering the application with the hand-drawn plans DeFrancesco submitted. If someone wants to make a major change like he is proposing, they should have to at least show that they put in the work to plan it, he said.

Stephen DeVoto, who was chair of the commission when it approved the farm winery regulations and said he also lives nearby, encouraged the commission to consider placing conditions on the application to address concerns, rather than rejecting it.

The commission should require that the owner of the winery also live on the property, DeVoto said, as DeFrancesco is proposing to do. That could alleviate some of the noise concerns, he said. And the commission could also place conditions on hours, noise and lighting to avoid disturbing neighbors, he said.

Traditional agriculture is not viable on 7.5 acres, and the farm winery, brewery and cidery regulations were meant to give more options to preserve open land and prevent it being developed into more subdivisions, said DeVoto.

“A business like this, perhaps ideally, is on a dead-end road on a 40-acre parcel, surrounded by nothing other than fields and cows and corn and grapes,” DeVoto said. “That doesn’t exist in Middletown. This is probably as good as you can get.

Halligan bristled at the applicant’s suggestion that the town could enforce conditions on the zoning permit like hours of operation and capacity by issuing cease and desist orders. It amounts to the winery breaking the rules to make money, while others spend money to enforce the rules, he said.

“We just want to enjoy our properties,” Halligan said. “We bought residential homes, we shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

DeFrancesco said he was willing to work to make everyone comfortable with his application. He didn’t need to host weddings or craft fairs, or other events with 150 people. The winery didn’t need to be open late, he said – it could close at 6 p.m. on the weekdays it was open, and 8 or 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

He said he was willing to commission a traffic study, a noise study, and come back with more detailed plans for the operation. He didn’t want to create a nuisance, he said – just make a workable business that allowed him to farm the land and preserve it.

“We will comply with everything the commission requests, we will work with the neighbors, we will work with the naysayers. We want people to be happy,” DeFrancesco said. “We’re not going to make everyone happy, some people just disagree because they want to disagree, but we will do our best to make it a nice place.”

Commission alternate member Kellin Atherton, who said he lives near the proposed site, said the application needs significant changes for the commission to even consider it. What DeFrancesco has proposed is a retail use that Atherton said Miner Street can’t support.

“If you are a successful business, you would be contributing to traffic on Miner Street,” Atherton said. “The scale of your project is very large, and I don’t think the concerns of the neighborhood have been addressed.”

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