Vorstevelds spar with Ferrisburgh over roadside tree cutting

FERRISBURGH — At an occasionally testy Oct. 2 Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting, the owners of the Vorsteveld Farm and board members continued to spar in what is now a 17-month dispute over the farmers’ April 2017 decision to remove without permission almost 2,000 trees and a hedgerow in the town right-of-way along Arnold Bay Road.
About a dozen Ferrisburgh farmers showed up at the Tuesday meeting to support the Vorsteveld brothers and their right to cut the trees and shrubs in a three-quarter-mile stretch of road running north from Panton near Lake Champlain.
At earlier meetings many area neighbors complained to the board of the loss of the shade canopy that covered almost all of that stretch, and have also said they were worried about the loss of a buffer to prevent runoff into the nearby lake.
Selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel said at the meeting the board wants the Vorstevelds to follow through with a planting program to soften the impact of the clear-cutting.
Ebel said neighbors enjoyed the road in its previous condition, and the board had to take their wishes into consideration.
“The town has a responsibility there,” he said.
But the Vorstevelds maintain the property is theirs to do with as they see fit. After Ebel at one point said the board is sticking to its position of expecting the Vorstevelds to fund some planting, Rudolf Vorsteveld, co-owner of the farm with his brothers Hans and Gerard Vorsteveld, responded.
“We cleared that to get rid of the trees. We’re sticking with that issue,” he said.
Selectman Red Muir and Gerard Vorsteveld exchanged words later in the meeting.
“What defines a tree?” Vorsteveld asked at one point.
“Are we getting into this crap tonight?” Muir responded. “This is unacceptable.”
“I’ve been dealing with this for a while,” Vorsteveld said.
“So have we,” Muir said.
Both the town and the Vorstevelds have retained lawyers, and this spring went through mediation. After mediation town officials thought there was an understanding that trees that remained would not be cut. But the Vorstevelds went ahead and hired a firm to remove the rest of trees, a move that upset town officials.
More recently, the selectboard instructed the town attorney to write to the Vorstevelds that further work to complete a planned tile drainage system in the town right of way would require a state “1111” permit to work in a road right-of-way.
The statute No. 19 V.S.A. No. 1111, 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.”
Ebel confirmed on Wednesday after last week’s Tuesday meeting that the town hoped to attach as a condition of such a permit that the Vorstevelds go through with a planting program in which they would replace at least some of the trees and shrubs that were removed.
“It is in the town’s interests to see a replanting take place,” Ebel said in a Wednesday phone interview.
At the same time he acknowledged the conflicting points of view on landowners’ and town’s rights.
“It’s a tough issue. It’s not cut and dried, but hopefully we can come to a resolution,” Ebel said.
After some debate at the meeting, Gerard Vorsteveld approached the selectboard table and filled out a permit application. But first he questioned whether the permit even applied to the tile drainage system they plan to install on the fields to the east of Arnold Bay Road to make the soil drier and friendlier for corn crops. They said the permit application refers to utility work.
Ebel and Gerard Vorsteveld debated the issue.
“The next step is to run the tile into the ditch for drainage,”’ Ebel said. “That’s where you need a permit.”
“It’s a utility permit,” Gerard said. “We’re not putting in any utilities.”
“It’s not a utility permit,” Ebel said. “It’s a permit to work in the right of way.”
After board member Red Muir (speaking through an electronic speaker in absentia) said the tile drainage system would dump water into a ditch installed by the town, Vorsteveld borrowed a pen and filled out the application.
Muir and Gerard Vorsteveld also exchanged words again.
Muir also claimed Vorsteveld had said at an early selectboard meeting discussion the farm would replant at least some trees and shrubs.
“Right back in the beginning you had no problem doing that,” Muir said.
“I think our comment was we understand your position,” Gerard said. “I agreed to entertain your idea.”
“Then you didn’t,” Muir said.
“I didn’t like it,” Gerard said.
Gerard Vorsteveld also suggested the town was not being fiscally responsible by fighting the farm on the issue.
“How much has the town spent, wasted, on this crap?” he asked.
Ebel estimated, “$20,000, maybe.”
Farmers backed the Vorstevelds on the question.
More than one farmer said the Vorstevelds did Ferrisburgh a favor by removing scrub growth from along the road.
“They did a lot of your work. It’s a win-win for the town,” said Bernie Dam.
Farmer James Danyow said once he cleared three or four miles of his road frontage without complaint.
“I don’t know what the big deal is now,” Danyow said
In response to a neighbor questioning whether the removal of the hedgerow and trees would allow more pollution to reach Lake Champlain, Ben Dykema said the tile drainage system the Vorstevelds were proposing was effective in reducing flow and cleaning water, and “good for carbon sequestration.”
He added that it was a “disgrace” that towns allow hedgerows to grow up and damage passing large vehicles, and that farmers have an absolute right to manage trees and plants on their properties.
“This will go to the Supreme Court and you will have a room 10 times this big full of farmers meeting you,” Dykema said.
Dykema described it as “a property rights issue.”
But Ebel said it was not that simple when many others who used Arnold Bay Road had different preferences.
“It’s a right-of-way issue,” he said.
Addison resident Tom Fisher offered a different point of view. He said he was neutral, but had won a previous similar Vermont Supreme Court case because the location of a similar road right-of-way in his town could not be pinned down. Fisher said he believed not only that the Arnold Bay Road right of way was narrower than believed — three rods, not six — but impossible to pinpoint because it relied on 200-year-old citations of tree locations.
“I don’t think the trees the Vorstevelds cut were in the town right of way at all,” he said.
In summing up, Ebel said Ferrisburgh road foreman John Bull would meet the Vorstevelds as soon as the next day to start working out a site plan for integrating the tile drainage system into the ditch, and that Bull would also research ways to buffer any runoff.
“We need to work together. That’s why there’s a permit process,” he said.
Ebel thanked the farmers — several of whom he said are his neighbors — for their comments, but did not back down from the town’s position that it and other residents also have rights.
“There’s a balance here,” he said. “It (the cutting) changed the whole character of the road.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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