Ferrisburgh will seek to settle tree-cutting case

FERRISBURGH — After a June 20 closed-door meeting with the Ferrisburgh selectboard, town attorney Jim Carroll told about 20 residents that he would be working to reach a settlement with the Vorsteveld Farm for cutting down about 1,900 trees and shrubs in the town right of way this spring along a three-quarter-mile stretch of Arnold Bay Road.
But Carroll added that a court case remains possible based on the statute that requires landowners to obtain permission before cutting trees in town rights of way.
Meanwhile, the owners of the Vorsteveld Farm say they hope the appearance of the finished project will go a long way toward answering the concerns of town officials and their neighbors.
Carroll on June 20 told the crowd at the town office building, including two Vorsteveld Farm representatives, that he could talk only in general terms about his legal approach to a possible resolution that he hoped would be “fair and equitable” for all parties.
“I cannot be specific about plans I want to put in place,” Carroll said at what was a special selectboard meeting devoted to an issue that has sparked debate and upset neighbors of the farm.
In an interview the next day, Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence echoed the board’s attorney about an issue that Ferrisburgh’s tree warden has said exposes the Vorsteveld Farm to up to about $1 million in fines.
“The board’s goal is to reach an agreement that works for everyone, where everyone is satisfied,” Lawrence said. “We’d rather settle it out of court. I think Jim pretty much said it.”
In an interview with the Independent on June 21, Vorsteveld Farm co-owner Hans Vorsteveld said he hoped that completion of the farm’s plans for that section of Arnold Bay Road, all on its east side and running north of the Panton town line, would satisfy the town and the farm’s neighbors.
“I think there is a pretty good possibility we can do that,” Vorsteveld said.
Work to finish the project is well under way. Vorsteveld acknowledged the initial cut left by the workers the farm hired left a mess of roughly four-foot stumps, he said because fencing embedded among the trees and shrubs along the road prevented a lower cut. The spring’s poor weather also slowed the project, but he said it is progressing better now.
“They’ve got most of the stumps out, and they’ve been cleaning up the rocks,” Vorsteveld said. “It’s just a matter of they’ve got to clean up a lot of wood, and they’ve got to get the right day to burn it, when the wind is in the right direction when they can burn it and it’s not going to smoke anybody out.”
The Vorstevelds’ end goal is to clear the debris, leave a number of the nicer trees standing, and dig a ditch along the road as part of an underground drainage system they plan to install in the fields along the road. That drainage system, perforated pipe three-and-a-half-feet deep, will keep dry the roots of the corn and hay they intend to plant.
“Our plan is to put in tile drainage. Before you put in tile drainage, you’ve got to clean your fields up,” Vorsteveld said. “This is a long-term investment.”
Vorsteveld hopes when area residents — few, if any, of whom have direct views from their homes of the land in question — see the final result they might be happier.
“There was a lot of scrub, a lot of sumac. There was a lot of ugly stuff in there. It was just an overgrown hedgerow without a lot of good things in it. Yes, there were a few nice things in there, but we also left a couple of nice things,” Vorsteveld said. “We left a few big trees along the road. We had a vision that you could ignore all the ugliness and see what it would look like when it was all done. It will actually look pretty nice.”
Vorsteveld also said he believed removal of the trees and shrubs along the road would actually help the town highway department maintain the dirt road by keeping it drier in the spring and providing space for snow removal in the winter.
“It’s going to be an asset to the town as well,” he said.
But Ferrisburgh Road Foreman John Bull did not agree with that point of view. If anything, Bull said, it was possible the Arnold Bay Road could now be subject to snowdrifts in the winter, while his department has never had problems “taking care of it.”
Still, the question of the legality of the clear-cutting remains. Ferrisburgh tree warden Clifton Mix recommended in a May 16 letter to the selectboard a penalty based on the Vermont law that bans landowners from cutting trees in town right-of-ways without permission.
The statute calls for a fine of up to $500 per tree for “any person who willfully critically injures or cuts down a public shade tree without written permission of a tree warden or legislative body of the municipality.” Given the number of trees and saplings felled along Arnold Bay Road, Mix arrived at a potential $1,088,000 fine.
Mix concluded in his letter that the Vorsteveld Farm should be fined and required to fix the damage.
“I recommend a monetary penalty as well as full rehabilitation of the area affected. Full rehabilitation shall include stumping and cleanup/removal of all stumps and woody debris and the installation of an appropriate species to establish an aesthetic hedgerow occupying the entire affected area, approximately 0.75 miles,” he wrote.
Last week, Carroll told residents that law and related statutes have not been tested in court, adding that the statutes “are not black and white” and “have gray about them.”
Asked by resident Katia La Manna where those gray areas are, Carroll answered, “I’m going to keep my powder dry. It’s a statute that has not had a lot of use … in litigation.”
Resident Mark Berger said he would like to see Ferrisburgh establish a precedent.
“It is our obligation to do whatever we need to do to erase that legal ambiguity,” Berger said.
Carroll said his description of gray areas should not be taken to mean he is not confident in the town’s position.
“I don’t want you to walk away with some notion that I’m not optimistic,” he said.
Vorsteveld said he and his family co-owners believed they owned the land, which they bought three years ago, and were simply making improvements to better farm it.
“We just want to use all the land that we bought,” he said.
Vorsteveld said he remains unclear how their use of the land interferes with the town’s right of way.
“I still haven’t heard from anybody what is the right of the landowner and what is the right of town when they’ve got the right of way,” Vorsteveld said. “So when you buy the land my understanding is you own up to the middle of the road and you pay town tax up to the middle of the road. The town just has the right of way to go across the land to put the road in and to maintain it.”
Vorsteveld also said he and his farm co-owners wished neighbors had brought their concerns directly to them initially, and said some who have spoken to them since “seemed a lot more at ease” after doing so.
His family remains “open to discussion,” with neighbors, Vorsteveld said, and he was planning to sit down at a Vergennes eatery with one neighbor to talk things over.
“We’re just farming and trying to make a living,” he said. “We didn’t even know there were issues until we got this certified mail in our mailbox that we had to cease and desist all activities on Arnold Bay Road. So I went and talked to some of the neighbors down there and I had no idea they were so upset. So I said, ‘Why don’t you guys come talk to us?’”

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