Ferrisburgh, farmers reach deal in tree-cutting dispute

It’s a total crock … because of the town’s financial advantages.
— Gerard Vorsteveld

FERRISBURGH — The town of Ferrisburgh and the owners of Vorsteveld Farms LLC have reached a settlement in the legal dispute over their 2017 cutting of more than 2,000 trees in the town’s right of way on Arnold Bay Road.
The agreement required the farm’s owners, brothers Gerard, Hans and Rudolf Vorsteveld, to pay a $30,000 settlement to the town of Ferrisburgh. It does not require them to perform any restorative work along the 0.75-mile stretch of road running north from the Panton town line.
The deal became official last week when Addison County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout signed a document that both parties had earlier inked.
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chair Jessica James said she received the town’s copy on Monday and the check from the Vorstevelds’ attorneys on their behalf has already cleared.
“It is 100% resolved now,” James said.
As well as the settlement payment to the town, the agreement calls for both sides to cover their own attorneys’ fees. As of March 9, according to Ferrisburgh Treasurer Deb Healey, the town had run up $63,231.48 in legal and mediation costs.
The controversy began in April 2017, when neighbors complained after the farmers hired a contractor to remove a hedgerow and trees along the east side of the road.
Although much of the growth the Vorstevelds had removed consisted of brush and hedgerow, there were also enough mature trees to form a canopy along much of that stretch of Arnold Bay Road.
In a 2017 letter to the farm, Ferrisburgh Tree Warden Clifton Mix wrote there were more than 2,000 trees felled along the road in the town’s right of way, which extends onto property on both sides.
Based on that estimate he wrote the farm could face a $1,088,000 penalty based on a per-tree fine of up to $500 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.”
The brothers — who operate a large dairy farm with land in both Ferrisburgh in Panton — maintained they had the right to work up until the edge of the road, land they note they pay taxes on. They removed the roadside growth in order to install a tile drainage system and improve the land for crops.
Gerard Vorsteveld on Monday defended the farmers’ failure to ask for a permit, offering a rhetorical question.
“Why would we ask permission to cut trees on our own land?” Vorsteveld said.
He added he and his brothers were improving farmland they had relatively recently purchased and that had not been modernized.
Most neighbors who complained live along the nearby lakefront to the west and attended a series of selectboard meetings.
But many of the town’s farmers were among residents who sided with the Vorstevelds at and outside meetings.
This year 250 residents signed a petition seeking to place a measure on the Town Meeting Day ballot that if approved would ask the selectboard to stop spending money on the Vorsteveld case. Board members said they were not required to put the measure on the ballot, and they didn’t.
In the legal arena, a 2018 attempt at mediation failed, and the selectboard in January 2019 voted to take the issue to Environmental Court. According to court records, the attorney for the farm filed a number of pre-trial motions in the case, including at least one seeking an outright dismissal, but all were denied.
About a year ago, one last Vorsteveld motion was dismissed. The farm sought to have the court define “public shade tree” as a tree planted by a town for the purpose of providing shade, but the court did not agree.
After that ruling the case moved into the discovery phase, the last before trial. But the judge late last year ordered another mediation session. This time, it worked.
James said the Ferrisburgh selectboard was pleased with the resolution, even at the process’s cost and length.
She said the settlement clarifies what landowners must do when they contemplate working near roads (specifically seek a local Section 1111 permit to work in a road right of way), while the board’s actions upheld the rule of law and established a precedent.
“We supported our tree warden and our 1111 permits and working with the regulatory functions of the town, so I do think it’s worth it. We were enforcing those laws, those ordinances,” James said. “Unfortunately, it lasted longer than anybody wanted it to last. But I’m very happy with the way the mediation worked out, and I know the selectboard is very happy with it as well.”
James also said the settlement coincides with a new state law that gives local tree wardens more authority, including on right-of-way permitting.
And she noted the town has just formed a tree committee that will identify public shade trees not only along roads, but also on town property throughout Ferrisburgh, and then write new town laws at least partly based on that inventory.
“We’re going to turn our attention to creating a public shade tree identification and maintenance program for the town,” James said.
There remain hard feelings on the other side of the ledger, however. Vorsteveld said he didn’t feel good about the settlement, but the brothers agreed to the arrangement because it made financial sense.
“That’s how the criminal justice system works. We would have spent more on lawyers to win than what it cost us now,” he said. “It’s a total crock … because of the town’s financial advantages.”
Vorsteveld was also not pleased the selectboard declined to honor the taxpayer petition seeking to defund the legal case, even if by early March most town spending was wrapped up.
“They didn’t ask the taxpayers if that’s what the town should be doing,” he said.
Vorsteveld said he believed that a minority of residents ultimately drove the town’s actions on the question.
“I don’t think the town had a problem,” he said. “Just a handful of people in town had a problem.”

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