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Ferrisburgh, farmers eye mediation in tree-cutting

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said last week that the owners of the Vorsteveld Farm have accepted the town’s offer of mediation as a way to resolve the dispute over whether the farm had the right to clear-cut trees and shrubs this past spring in the town right-of-way along Arnold Bay Road’s east side.
The selectboard met behind closed doors on Tuesday, Feb. 6, and Lawrence confirmed on Wednesday the board discussed the Vorstevelds’ acceptance of the board’s offer of mediation.
Coming out of executive session, Lawrence said the board voted to authorize town attorney Jim Carroll to contact the Vorstevelds’ lawyer, Jim Foley of Middlebury, and work toward setting up a mediation meeting.
“It’s the first best step,” Lawrence said. “Hopefully we can sit down and resolve our concerns and issues through mediation.”
The timetable is uncertain, she said.
“That’s to be determined. We’ve got to talk and agree on a mediator and set up things,” Lawrence said.
That said, Lawrence said some time in March might be reasonable.
“We’d like to get it done sooner than later,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be successful through mediation.”
What is certain is that the Vorstevelds hired a company to cut down almost all the trees and shrubs on a three-quarter mile stretch of Arnold Bay Road running north from the Panton town line. That act prompted many neighbors to complain to the selectboard.
One of the farm owners, Hans Vorsteveld, told the Independent that he believed the farm had the right to remove what he described as an “overgrown hedgerow” from their land. Vorsteveld said the work was done to add cropland and improve drainage, and the finished product would be attractive.
Town tree warden Clifton Mix estimated up to $1 million of “public shade trees” had been illegally removed based on a statute that states landowners may not cut trees in a town right-of-way without first receiving permission from a town tree warden or a selectboard, and sets the fine as up to $500 per tree for “any person who willfully critically injures or cuts down a public shade tree without written permission.”
In the first of two certified letters to the Vorstevelds, Carroll cited that figure. In a second letter in November requesting a response, Carroll wrote the farm owners “as individuals and partners of Vorsteveld Farm, LLP, are subject to a fine of not more than $500 for each tree so injured or removed, as well as an award of damages … for the trespass and removal of the shade trees, as well as other injunctive relief to assure that the damage caused is mitigated through a replanting plan.”
Per the letter, the contractors the farm hired removed 306 shade trees with trunks at least 6-inch diameters and another 1,870 trees and shrubs along Arnold Bay Road.
There could be reason for compromise.
Carroll cited several statutes, but also acknowledged in an earlier public meeting that although he was confident in the town’s position the tree statutes are “not black and white.”
Another tree warden in the region, who prefers to remain anonymous, identified a statute that appears to support the Vorstevelds’ position.
That statute, 19 V.S.A. § 901, refers to “Removal of roadside growth,” and it reads: “A person, other than the abutting landowner, shall not cut, trim, remove, or otherwise damage any grasses, shrubs, vines, or trees growing within the limits of a State or town highway, without first having obtained the consent of the Agency for State highways or the selectmen for town highways.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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