Ferrisburgh to farm: No permit, no cutting

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard last week instructed town attorney Jim Carroll to inform the owners of the Vorsteveld Farm through their attorney, Jim Foley of Middlebury, that any further tree-cutting in the town right-of-way along Arnold Bay Road would require a state permit.
That action followed an executive session held before the board’s regular Aug. 21 meeting. Board Chairman Rick Ebel said the board also authorized Carroll to “take any action he deems appropriate in relation to the shade tree statute,” which forbids the cutting of town-owned public shade trees without permission.
The controversy began in April 2017. That’s when without first obtaining permission to work in the town road right of way the Vorstevelds paid a contractor to remove almost all the trees and shrubs along the east side of Arnold Bay Road’s 0.75-mile Ferrisburgh stretch. Previously the trees had created a shaded canopy along the road.
Earlier this month, although the sides had been in mediation, the farm owners had more trees removed, triggering a new round of complaints from neighbors. More than a dozen attended the selectboard’s Aug. 7 meeting to protest. 
The board met with Carroll that evening and pledged future actions, but did not specify what would be done. Ebel said he could not reveal details of the Aug. 21 executive session and what would or could be done, but that Carroll now had the authority to act if necessary.
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. It sets the fine at up to $500 per tree for “any person who willfully critically injures or cuts down a public shade tree without written permission.”
Specifically, Carroll is insisting the Vorstevelds now get a permit under 19 V.S.A. No. 1111, which reads in part: “Permits must be obtained by anyone or any corporation wishing to use as described in this section any part of the highway right-of-way on either the State or town system.”  
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. 
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.
The recent tree removal was just “finishing the job,” Vorsteveld said. 
The laws are also contradictory in points: 19 V.S.A. § 901, referring to “Removal of roadside growth,” 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.” (Italics added.)
Before the recent tree-cutting, the town had planned to conduct 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. That work had been intended to determine, at least in part, what trees could be planted and where without interfering with the planned drainage work. 
The conservation commission will still be involved, however. Neighbors also said they were concerned that removal of the trees and shrubs could lead to runoff into Lake Champlain, and Ebel said the commission will make a site visit on Sept. 11 to evaluate that possibility. 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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