Trees and Roads: Where, How & Why?

If you haven’t followed Front Porch Forum or attended the most recent Selectboard meetings, you may not be aware of property owner concerns about roadside tree removal along two contiguous areas:

Smith Hill, Dole Hill, Stony Brook Rd.  and   Winch Hill, Bull RunMessier Hill Rd.

About two-dozen residents and property owners attended the June 21st special Selectboard meeting with concerns about proposed tree removal along these roadsides. (See the Meeting Minutes June 14 & Minutes June 21  to catch up to speed.)  Word had gotten around that Northfield’s road foreman had made a no-bid, no-contract deal with a private company to remove trees on Smith Hill.  Many property owners had only received the information by word-of-mouth from neighbors.  Obviously, property owners weren’t happy – but they were very civil and made no ill-will against the town foreman.

Example of brush mower equipment

Ordinarily, roadside growth management isn’t a cause of public arousal — but this is because, ordinarily, roadside growth management is conducted on a regular basis, which means a generation of trees don’t have the opportunity to grow to full maturity along town roads and highways.  150 years ago almost all of Vermont’s landscape was denuded, but in our lifetimes, we’re used to tree-lined back roads.  Some folks appreciate the aesthetics of tree canopies covering roadsides; others find these same sections of roads to be a nuisance and potentially unsafe.

But before we get into the subject, there are three things which need to be mentioned.  I’m sure I can’t cover all the issues today, but let’s get started.


1. The bottom line is that, under municipal law,  the Town has the authority to remove trees in road right-of-ways.  However, procedures need to be followed.  We need clear views and open ditches.  We shouldn’t have dead trees or limbs falling in roadways.  The Town has responsibilities to maintain highways.  But the Town is required to communicate with landowners, ideally in a way that prevents controversy.

IMG_19532. Part of these procedures include adherence to state policies, programs, and practices.  Some policies may overlap, raising interesting questions.  For example, does tree removal right next to a river, brook or stream — within a town right of way — comply with the Clean Water Act or the Riparian Buffer law?

IMG_19573. Perhaps the best thing that can be done moving forward is for the Town to draft a comprehensive road and highway plan.  The new Clean Water Act has created many new changes and requirements related to road maintenance.  According to state documents, the development of a Road Stormwater Management Plan is under way.  The  process to develop the RSMP identifies, inventories and prioritizes sections of roads connected to surface waters,  prioritizes maintenance, and provides a multi-year timeline for implementation.  Why not work with the State to draft a local highway plan?  There are new rules to follow, and we may as well work alongside experts from an early point.

So back to the basic point:  Vermont statute authorizes a Town to remove trees.  But there are rules a Town has to follow:

§ 904. Brush removal
The selectmen of a town, if necessary, shall cause to be cut and burned, or removed from within the limits of the highways under their care, trees and bushes which obstruct the view of the highway ahead or that cause damage to the highway or that are objectionable from a material or scenic standpoint. Shade and fruit trees that have been set out or marked by the abutting landowners shall be preserved if the usefulness or safety of the highway is not impaired. Young trees standing at a proper distance from the roadbed and from each other, and banks and hedges of bushes that serve as a protection to the highway or add beauty to the roadside, shall be preserved. On State highways, the Secretary shall have the same authority as the selectmen. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)

However, with only a word-of-mouth deal – a definite no-no in government — the tree removal company — Limlaw Pulpwood & Chipping — would have had a huge liability on their hands.  Statute 901 says:

901. Removal of roadside growth 

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. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)

Violations result in a penalty between $10 and $100 for each offense, under statute 902. Lacking proof of consent (a contract) would have been a huge legal liability.   

Another part of the process that didn’t fully take place recently was communication with landowners and the offering of felled trees, which are owned by the landowner, not the Town.  The word-of-mouth deal offered the tree removal service company trees in exchange for service.  The town can’t trade things it doesn’t own.  It can offer only the trees a property owner doesn’t want to keep.

This leads to the question of “free” service.  The word-of-mouth deal was described as “free” multiple times, but as we know, nothing in life is free.  Sure, taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill.  The work would be subsidized by property owners.

This leads to another question:  what is the value of the contract?  The insinuation was that the value of exchange was pulpwood stumpage for “$300/hr” tree removal service.  (Apparently, roadside tree removal service costs as much as a New York attorney.)

But are Northfield’s back roads lined 100% with pulpwood?  Not at all.  There’s maple, pine, birch, black cherry, hemlock — all sorts of trees.  Some trees have value as lumber, some as firewood.  Even standing dead can have high-value.  Spalted maple slabs retail in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. 

Now, does a single property owner have enough trees to make it worth their while to cut, process and sell?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s fair to ask, “What is the sum value of trees some property owners — not all — contribute to offset the cost of the “free” contract?”

Does it matter?  Well, from a practical perspective, if the property owners aren’t going to use felled trees, maybe not.  But if property owners want to form a cooperative effort to maximize value for themselves, there’s no law stopping them.

No matter what property owners choose to do, we should at least acknowledge their contribution.  If you think about it, roadside property owners will be essentially paying a double tax — a property tax,  plus the value of trees the Town is giving away to pay for highway maintenance any resident may enjoy.

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