Farmers cut more trees in town right of way
FERRISBURGH — After the Vorsteveld Farm recently paid a contractor to cut more trees in the town right of way along Arnold Bay Road, an issue about which the farm and Ferrisburgh officials are already involved in a legal dispute, the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday promised upset neighbors it would take legal action.
After neighbors — and Selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel — said they were frustrated with the farmers’ actions, the board met with town attorney Jim Carroll behind closed doors for 20 minutes.
Afterward, Ebel pledged action: He said the board was not ready to be specific, but would continue to consult with Carroll before making a move.
“We are going to be meeting with our attorney,” Ebel said. “There are actions that are going to be taken.”
In April 2017 — without first obtaining permission to work in the town right of way — the Vorstevelds had almost all the trees and shrubs along the east side of Arnold Bay Road’s 0.75-mile Ferrisburgh stretch removed. Previously the trees had created a shaded canopy along the road.
Farm co-owner Hans Vorsteveld has described what was removed as “an overgrown hedgerow,” and he and his family partners maintain they own the land and have the right to work on it. They plan to install a tile drainage system on the fields that abut the road to improve them as cropland.
Ebel said he visited the site recently and when he discovered the trees were being removed he was not happy that the farmers had not honored an ongoing mediation process. The selectboard late last year asked the Vorstevelds to join them in mediation, and a session was held in April.
Plans had called for a GPS study of the area that had to wait until the town road crew completed ditching work along the road, probably this month, and a Ferrisburgh Conservation Commission study of the farm’s drainage plans.
When on the site, Ebel said on the advice of the contractor he called farm co-owner Gerard Vorsteveld.
“I was not hearing real nice things from Gerard on the phone,” Ebel said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It seems like the Vorstevelds have not held up their end.”
Reached by phone on Wednesday morning, farm co-owner Hans Vorsteveld said he saw it differently.
“We were just finishing the job,” Vorsteveld said.
He insisted his family owns the land and has the right to improve the land as it sees fit.
“They seem to think they get to control someone else’s property,” Vorsteveld said.
The timing of the work was a matter of economics and convenience, he said.
“All the equipment was there. If we’ve got to move the equipment back and forth it costs money,” Vorsteveld said. “So if it’s right there we might as well get it done.”
Neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting, including Tom Spencer, offered their perspective.
Spencer described the change.
“I used to enjoy walking on Arnold Bay Road in the shade,” he said.
Spencer also said he had in the past jumped through all the necessary hoops to get permission for a four-lot subdivision, and even paid to repair water valves damaged by town road workers because the valves were in the town right of way.
“I followed the rules,” Spencer said, in remarks that drew applause from fellow neighbors. “I expect the Vorstevelds to also follow the rules, and I expect the town to enforce the rules.”
But the rules can be described as, at least in part, contradictory.
According to one Vermont law, landowners may not cut trees in a town right-of-way without first receiving permission from a town tree warden or a selectboard, and the fine is up to $500 per tree for “any person who willfully critically injures or cuts down a public shade tree without written permission.”
Ferrisburgh’s tree warden Clifton Mix and Carroll both wrote 2017 letters alleging the Vorsteveld Farm technically could be fined up to $1 million for cutting down the trees.
Carroll referenced several state statutes the Vorstevelds allegedly violated by hiring a contractor to remove, per his letter, 306 shade trees with trunks at least 6-inches in diameter and another 1,870 trees and shrubs along Arnold Bay Road.
But another tree warden in the region, who preferred to remain anonymous, identified a statute that could support the Vorstevelds’ position that the farm owners had a right to remove the trees.
That statute, 19 V.S.A. § 901, refers to “Removal of roadside growth.” 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.”
In a June 2017 meeting devoted to the tree-cutting issue, Carroll said the statutes on the question “are not black and white” and “have gray about them,” although he added he was also confident in the town’s position.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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