Farmer ready to fire air cannon to protect crop, but talks with neighbors set
FERRISBURGH — Although there is still time for a negotiated solution, the Ferrisburgh farmer who upset his lakefront neighbors a year ago by firing a propane cannon to protect his sweet corn crop said this week he is prepared to use the cannon again as soon as next week.
Wayne Stearns, owner of Crazy Acres Farm on Schoolhouse Road, said if the flock of starlings that lives on his farm starts attacking his corn, he is considering deploying a cannon that in 2014 fired thousands of times a day for about a month.
That constant noise caused dozens of area residents to complain to town officials and sparked hard feelings in the neighborhood between the Basin Harbor Club and Summer Point.
Neighbors said the propane cannon boomed as loud as a shotgun, echoed all the way across Lake Champlain, and affected the quality of their lives and even their health.
Now they could get a repeat, as Stearns said the cannon has proven to be the only way he can protect his crop.
“I’m going to turn the cannon on,” Stearns said on Tuesday. “I grew the corn to harvest it and to sell it, and I intend on doing it unless something changes significantly.”
Stearns did say it depends on the birds’ behavior. The corn came in late this year, when more berries and other food options also ripened. He believes the birds could leave his crop alone, and if so he won’t use the cannon.
“Maybe the birds won’t be a problem. Then I obviously won’t. I’m not going to turn it on just to be a jerk,” he said.
The neighborhood has been tense while waiting to see — and hear — if Stearns was going to use the cannon.
“Everyone’s been holding their breath,” said neighbor Lee Weisman.
HOPE FOR A SOLUTION
But there is hope negotiations can restore peace to the neighborhood, although neighbors and Stearns tried unsuccessfully a year ago to find alternatives to the cannon to protect his 1-to-2 acre crop, which Stearns said could generate at least $5,000 in sales.
Stearns, who would be happy with a $5,000 payment, said he remains willing to discuss solutions, preferably through a mediator.
“I think we need one. I honestly, completely, 100 percent think that would be the resolving solution. We need a non-biased party,” he said.
That idea could gain traction, said neighbor and longtime Stearns acquaintance Peter Mazeine, who has spoken to Stearns several times in hopes of resolving the cannon issue, most recently on Wednesday morning.
“I talked to him this morning, and I think that’s the direction we’re leaning in, to bring in a mediator,” Mazeine said.
Stearns said on Tuesday their earlier discussions “went south.” Still, Mazeine said on Wednesday after they talked earlier that morning things went better, with Stearns understanding that if he were to head to mediation he would have to compromise.
“You have to have an expectation of what an acceptable outcome is for either side,” Mazeine said. “If it’s Wayne’s position that he should be able to use the cannon, that I have every right to use the cannon, and then the other side is saying, no you don’t, the question is if you’ve got two sides that are so diametrically opposed, what is that middle ground?”
Mazeine said that middle ground could mean Stearns accepting “good will” as part of an agreement, and remembering that neighbors in the past contributed to conserving land that is now part of Crazy Acres Farm.
“Some of it is economic, maybe in terms of a dollar amount that might be paid to you by the group to say, look, we understand you suffered an economic loss because you can’t use the cannon. But other parts of it may be less tangible, like you have some good will from the neighborhood,” Mazeine said. “He needs to understand if he’s simply looking for the group to write him a big check, that very well might happen, but there’s not a lot of good will that is going to come from that. But if we give and he gives, then maybe a mediator can play a role.”
As far as one possible mediated solution, Stearns in 2014 rejected crop insurance, which neighbors offered to buy for him and Mazeine mentioned again, because it would be equivalent to fraud as he said it would be certain that the birds would eat his corn without the cannon.
He said on Tuesday a $5,000 settlement would be reasonable given the more than 80 surrounding properties, although neighbors were skeptical of his $8,000 request in 2014.
“We’re talking less than $100 a year for their peace of mind,” he said.
As of last week, most neighbors were not aware that Stearns was interested in mediation. Weisman said he and at least one other homeowner he spoke with had not heard of that possibility.
Weisman said he would welcome the approach.
“I would jump at the chance to sit down with a knowledgeable mediator, absolutely. To me, that’s a huge step forward on Wayne’s part,” he said. “Personally, I would absolutely want to chase that down. I can’t believe anyone else wouldn’t.”
Stearns’ neighbors have lobbied the Ferrisburgh selectboard for a noise ordinance, but board members said after doing research that such a law would be unwieldy and unenforceable in their rural town. One neighbor also suggested making propane cannons a conditional use in zoning districts, thus giving farmers the right to use them providing they are not too disruptive to nearby neighborhoods.
But the selectboard has declined to get involved in the town’s only recorded instance of propane cannon use, with its official position that it is a neighborhood civil issue that should be resolved by the involved parties, as now seems at least possible.
Earlier this year, the Ferrisburgh Board of Listers did lower the town’s assessment 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 will add about $2.50 to the average property tax bill of Ferrisburgh’s 3,761 taxpayers. Those adjustments will be erased if Stearns does not use the cannon.
Last week, the Ferrisburgh Board of Civil Authority ruled against further property tax grievances filed by 11 of Stearns’ neighbors who sought to have their assessments lowered because of the propane cannon use. Selectboard members and Town Clerk Gloria Warden, who are BCA members, recused themselves from the process.
BCA chairwoman Jean Richardson said she could not comment on the ruling because the property owners had not yet received their decisions, but that BCA members sympathized with those who came before the board.
“Every single person on the BCA recognized the cannon noise is increasing stress for the people who live along the lakeshore,” Richardson said.
Meanwhile, Mazeine said, it is at least possible that stress might stop.
“We’re still all hoping for a happy ending, and the recent discussions leave me hoping for a happy ending,” he said.
But agreement still must be reached, and time is running short.
“He seems to be in a place where he would like to talk and find a solution, and our side has always wanted to find a solution,” Mazeine said. “The question is just what that middle ground looks like.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].