The firing line: Cannon use to defend crop has neighbors up in arms

FERRISBURGH — Those involved in the dispute over Ferrisburgh farmer Wayne Stearns’ propane cannon talk about shattered dreams — and the shattered peace in a neighborhood along Lake Champlain.
From mid-July through mid-August last summer, Stearns, 43, fired the cannon — which makes a sound his neighbors liken to a shotgun — every minute or so from dawn to dusk.
Stearns said the cannon was the only thing that kept a flock of starlings from eating his crop of sweet corn. He said nothing else worked to keep birds away, not scarecrows, owl sculptures or even holographic owls provided by his neighbors.
Many of those neighbors own summer homes on Lake Champlain, and because of the noise the Ferrisburgh Board of Listers granted all Stearns’ neighbors tax breaks — contingent on whether Stearns fires up his cannon again this summer, something he won’t reveal.
But the town’s selectboard has declined to become involved despite his neighbors’ repeated requests to deal with a problem they say has hurt their property values, health, peace of mind and right to enjoy their homes.
Charles Piasecki, who lives just south of Stearns’ Schoolhouse Road dairy farm, has lobbied the selectboard to act at recent meetings and described the repetitive cannon shots as more than just a nuisance.
“The first week it was annoying. But as time went on it was really disturbing. It was like you couldn’t get it out of your mind,” Piasecki said. “Seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. And after a while you start counting the seconds between the shots.”
But chairman Steve Gutowski said selectboard members believe options like town-wide noise laws or cannon bans are not practical, and the issue is best settled between the parties.
“We feel this is a civil issue, something that has to be dealt with between those people and Wayne Stearns,” Gutowski said. “How much do you expect the town to take care of, beyond them taking a civil action against a neighbor that is causing them grief?”
Before this past summer, Stearns said he never used a cannon to protect what had been typically just an acre-plus of sweet corn on what he calls Crazy Acres Farm.  
In 2014, he said he decided to take advantage of the fact his girlfriend runs a fruit and vegetable stand on Route 7. He expanded the crop to 3.5 acres, just a fraction of his 650-acre spread, seeing a chance to make some extra cash.
He wanted to earmark the proceeds, an amount he estimated at $8,000, for his 7-year-old daughter’s college fund. Stearns said when he later negotiated with his neighbors about buying his crop in exchange for turning off the cannon, he had that fund in mind.
“I didn’t even want the checks made out to me,” Stearns said.
Stearns, 43, said he has planted a smaller crop of sweet corn this summer. He said he stopped using the cannon last year at some point after 40 residents this past August petitioned the selectboard for a noise ordinance.
Eventually, neither his crop nor his daughter’s college fund grew.
“I turned it off last year,” Stearns said. “I didn’t get any appreciation for it. I lost the whole crop.”
Relations with his neighbors also soured, by varying degrees. One of them confronted Stearns when he was eating dinner with his daughter at the Red Mill Restaurant on the nearby Basin Harbor Club — an incident that upset not only him but also some neighbors.
Stearns said he used to welcome visitors at his farm, letting children pet his animals. Now?
“Crazy Acres Farm is closed for business,” he said.
Meanwhile, last summer Stearns’ neighbors had dreamed of enjoying their stay on Lake Champlain, many on nearby Mile Point, where some homes have remained in families for generations.
Everyone who spoke to the Independent said they like Stearns and respect his work ethic — he takes care of his spread and 400 cows with one hired hand.
“I get along just fine with Wayne, by the way,” said Lee Weisman.
But they said the cannon made their lives miserable.
Neighbor Andrea Kerin — who said at one point she counted up to 42 blasts in 10 minutes — spoke at an Aug. 5, 2014, selectboard meeting and submitted a statement on behalf of a group of residents, one that said they “respect and appreciate farming” and “want to continue to work together as neighbors.”
It also stated, “The constant use of the cannon is affecting our use and enjoyment of our homes. Some people have left their summer home early, some are not coming at all knowing the constant noise will be too stressful … We are not able to have a conversation, to be able to have a quiet breakfast or dinner without the constant background of cannon blasts.”
Another letter-writer said she had to increase blood-pressure medication and go on an anti-anxiety drug: “I noticed my anxiety was increasing and I was teary, unable to concentrate, unable to carry on a conversation.”
Kerin last summer also made a financial case: “Mr. Stearns is not the only one at economic risk here, a lot of homeowners rely on rental income to pay their property taxes.”
According to May 2015 selectboard minutes, Patricia Kellogg, whose summer home is closest to Crazy Acres Farm, said property values could be hurt if the cannon use persisted: “She said it was sad that a beautiful part of the lakeshore had been destroyed, and didn’t know who would buy property in the area in the future if they knew about the cannon.”
In a May letter to the selectboard, Kellogg also said she had a greater concern: Illnesses for two of her family members that may make it their last summer on Lake Champlain.
“We care about the great personal loss and the pain and suffering that have resulted from his use of the cannon which will continue if he is not stopped,” Kellogg wrote. “Our only chance of the situation changing is a noise ordinance.”  
One town board acted. The board of listers lowered the appraisals of 85 properties between the Basin Harbor Club and Summer Point by a total of about $1.6 million. According to town officials, the change would add about $2.50 to the average property tax bill of Ferrisburgh’s 3,761 taxpayers.
Those adjustments will be erased later this summer if Stearns does not use the cannon.
Board of listers chairman Carl Cole said listers were under no obligation to make adjustments, but “common sense” told them that cannon use affects property values.
“We felt it would be appropriate to do something,” he said.
Residents who live near Crazy Acres Farm said they believe the selectboard also promised to act. Minutes from an August 2014 meeting — at which Stearns’ neighbors presented their petition — read:
“For the long term, the board agreed with residents who said the town needs to have rules on noise that can deal effectively with this kind of situation (the existing bylaws on noise specifically exempt agricultural operations). Steve Gutowski said he would get the ball rolling, probably beginning with a look at how other towns handle similar situations.”
But Gutowski said his research uncovered nothing that would be enforceable in Ferrisburgh, especially against farms.
“I looked at what there was for noise ordinances in other towns, particularly noise ordinances in towns like Ferrisburgh,” Gutowski said. “And I have not found any that have anything to do with agriculture. Noise ordinances seem to go with larger towns and cities. It’s more about loud music and loud neighbors and barking dogs and cars.”
Gutowski said it would be difficult to find somebody to enforce a noise law, nor does he believe Ferrisburgh would support it.
“If you took a town such as Ferrisburgh that supports agriculture,” Gutowski said, “I don’t feel that’s going to get any traction.”    
Nor does he think a simple cannon ban is appropriate.
“That’s where I think you’re going to have a problem, where you start telling the farmers you aren’t going to be able to use this tool,” Gutowski said.   
Piasecki believes there is a middle course. He suggested in a June letter to the selectboard making propane cannons a conditional use in the town’s zoning laws, a rule that would allow both farmers and neighbors to make their cases before the towns’ board of zoning adjustment.
“Agriculture does not have a free hand to do anything they want. They cannot cause public harm,” Piasecki said. “What we’re saying is this cannon is beyond the point of what is reasonable, for agriculture or anyone. There’s got to be a point where something is unreasonable, or they could be blasting off dynamite there all the time.”
Of course, maybe Stearns won’t fire his cannon again. Or maybe discussions between Stearns and his neighbors will work out this year, although they did not in 2014.
Stearns and neighbors talked about crop insurance, which would pay him for his losses if he couldn’t harvest the corn.   
But Stearns said he could not in good conscience accept the insurance.
“I’d feel like I’m committing fraud. I know the crop is going to fail,” he said.
Talks about neighbors buying the crop didn’t pan out either. Stearns said he based his $8,000 figure on an 80 percent failure rate overall, per stalk and per ear, and assumed one ear per stalk, an approach he called conservative.
According to Stearns, “I offered it to them. They laughed at me and told me they would give me $500.”
He said he has pictures of starlings perched on scarecrows and owl sculptures, and the holographic owls worked for two hours.
Still, some neighbors remain hopeful they can again meet with Wayne and explore options that work for other growers, a smaller sacrificial crop, humming strips of pie plates, or a rotating combination of solutions.
“The ideal situation is you sit down with Wayne,” Weisman said.
Stearns said he would probably agree to talk.
“I guess it would depend on who,” he said. “I’m fairly stubborn. I’m a good old Vermont boy. But I’m not so headstrong I’m not willing to listen. I want what’s best for everybody.”
At this point, the whole situation also has Stearns thinking of selling the farm he grew up on.
“There was a day when there wasn’t enough money in the world to get me to walk away,” he said. “But that’s not the case now.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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