Trees & Roads meeting notes & Thanks

IMG_1976Last night (June 28th) about 30 or so people attended the Selectboard meeting to discuss the subject of roadside tree removal.  The questions and concerns were well-informed.  Over the course of three meetings in three weeks’s time, the Board had the opportunity to listen, learn and self-educate on the issue.  Speaking for myself, this has been an enjoyable process which has raised intriguing questions and previously unknown opportunities.

Special thanks to all of the folks who stood at the podium last night.  For everyone’s reference, I’m posting the notes I took during the meeting.

Another thing:  you folks made a difference.  I’m proud of you.  You should be proud of yourselves, too.  The outcome of your work is a detailed draft contract and a thoughtful approach to a comprehensive project.
Community RoomI also want to thank Board Chair, Dave Maxwell for excellent leadership, thoughtfulness, and professionalism over the last three weeks.  As the newest member of the board, I’m learning the differences between policy, governance, and management.  Sometimes, after a stressful moment, Dave might share a bit of advice in a-wise-old-man-once-told-me story.  Thanks, Dave!

Here are my notes from last night’s meeting.  Please keep in mind I was typing while listening, so don’t expect polished writing.

    1. Nathaniel Miller:  Appreciates first dibs on timber.  Question of cost-shift to property owner.  Opportunity to negotiate with Town and/or tree removal contractor.
    2. Mel Adams:   Doesn’t want to see clear-cut.  Approves isolated, select cutting.  Can’t see how removal in some areas with stumps remaining will maintain scenic quality.  His support depends on whether on how we manage project.  Specific instructions and guidelines should be in contract.
    3. Kyle Daniels:  Approves selective cutting, but is concerned that only one contractor has been contacted.  Shouldn’t there be a Request For Proposal?  Traffic control is direct cost to Town.  Can we get a better deal?  Can the Town make money on the deal?  Suggests offering a test area.  Will contract be reviewed by an attorney?
      1. Russ Barrett adds the possibility of a 3-way contract including property owners
    4. Rodney Elmer:  Does Town have a budget for roadside clearing?  He referenced potential for natural disasters.  Mentions age of tree stock.  What about noise?  Are trees too big to grind?  Where is chipper located?  Logistically, this is a tremendous job.  He and others estimate there may be as much as 500 cords per mile in some areas.  Tremendous profit to be made on the part of the contractor.  Concerned about bare dirt, erosion, etc.  There’s no question works need to be done:  68 trees hit by snow plow on his section of road.  Problem of tree cuts along roads, young trees will reach to road to get access to more light.
    5. Conrad “Conny” Motyka:  Owns 1/2 mile of frontage on Loop Road.  Trent Tucker came to his house and talked to him about the project.  Connie has been a forester since 1962.  He has some concerns in a number of ways.  1.  Historic roads weren’t designed well; trees have acted as good guardrails where there’s a steep bank.  2.  Trees hold historic roads together on downhill embankments.  3.  Trees removal on uphill side may cause erosion.  Trees may be doing the Town a service in some places.  Suggests plow truck drivers should drive more slowly and carefully.  4. Also says he owns trees and has paid taxes on them.  He wants profits from the loss of his trees.
    6. Frank Pecora:  Turkey Hill.  He asks who is deciding what trees are going to get cut.  He wonders if he objects to a specific tree would the Town respect that; if the Warden & Road Foreman say it’s unsafe, and he doesn’t agree, who has final authority?
    7. Melinda Appel:  Winch Hill Rd.  Road trimming on her property has been very aggressive.  Culvert was struck last year.  Her property was cut more aggressively than on her neighbor’s property.
    8. Kyle Daniels & Mel Adams ask who is going to determine the center of roads and measurement of right of way.  Roads shift within original 3-rod corridor over time.
    9. Joe Zuaro:   Opportunity to save money; wants to be careful about it.  Want it done right.
    10. Therese Elmer:  What is total mileage of project?  This year?  Multiple years?  What happens if Limlaw chooses to not accept terms of new contract?  What about the cost to the Town of traffic control.  All land owners should have a chance to look at contract.
    11. Trish Coppolino:  Concerned about stream erosion.  Need to follow state policies.  Road was widened in front of her property 4 weeks ago without erosion control.
    12. Mary McCain:  Rural heritage sites?  Stony brook bridge & swimming hole area.  Aesthetics & beauty.
    13. Kyle Daniels:  Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?  Should we have a management plan?
      1. My response:  the State has a new Municipal Roads Program.  I described three step process.  Discuss the benefits of a comprehensive plan in general.
    14. Therese Elmer:  Follows up on question about why Town has to pay to clean up, replant and reseed area; pay for erosion control.
    15. Mary Dollenmair:  How many property owners are there?  Was told that Town Manage would have that number available.  Jeff responds that all property owners will be contacted.  (Didn’t give a number.)  Mary says, if there are a hundred property owners, then the process to contact property owners will take a long time.
    16. Carolyn Stevens:  The new contract should specify which laws should be followed vs. general clause.  Questions the definition of “shade tree”.  Definition doesn’t say anything about residential downtown vs. back roads.  The problem of subjective decision-making.  Surveyed rights of way:  problems of shifting road centers.  What about second-home owners?  Survey distance is horizontal distance vs. surface distance.  Riparian buffers, etc. Safety:  don’t want people increasing speeds.  Wider roads means faster cars.
    17. Jon Quinn:  Expresses thanks for alternative (funding) ways to get the job done.
    18. Kyle Daniels:  Asks if there’s another special meeting.
    19. Dave Maxwell:   He recommends Town Manager to move forward with a pilot effort on Winch Hill.  Dave emphasized the approach would involve communication and a fair process.

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.

NCDN launches!

On May 19th the Northfield Community Development Network made its official launch with a presentation detailing:

  • NCDN startup process
  • Three-part plan
  • Objectives to increase population, housing, and businesses
  • Roundtable meetings for public input
  • Board members’ financial commitment
  • How much funding we need to raise
  • Preview of a new logo for Northfield (we’ll be seeking input on June 28th)

So, here it is!  We’re still working hard and moving forward as we draft a business plan and begin to partner with the Town to more deeply involve the public — you! — toward a vibrant, upward-striving community.  Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Click the diagonal arrows in the lower right corner of the presentation box to make it big.  (You can download it here:  NCDN Launch presentation.)

The presentation showcases just a small amount of work we’ve actually done.  We’re also in the process of creating a business plan to ensure we’re creating a financially sustainable organization which may become a permanent resource for Northfield residents, businesses, and organizations.  The learning process has been intensive, informative and absolutely fun!

We’ll post the first draft of the plan in another post.  Right now the plan is in a “lap brief” format — a shortened version which is easier to digest.  We’re very fortunate and proud to have an opportunity to develop the plan via an invitation from Ro Pelletier, Doctor of Public Administration, at Norwich University.  Thanks, Ro!

And thanks to everyone contributing to and watching the NCDN as we put forth our best efforts to improve Northfield’s economy and quality of life!


EcDev: What’s new behind the scenes!

This involves Ice Cream.

Area Wide Plan Timeline

The Economic Development Committee kicked it old-school on June 1st, marking up the whiteboard in the municipal building conference room.  The subject:  creating a plan for two commercial/industrial “brownfield” properties

A brownfield is an industrial or commercial site “where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination.”   Property owners have to think about these things before they buy, sell or develop land which may — or may not — be contaminated.

At stake is the difference between a property being developed — or not.  Let’s say you want to build office space on a location where, once upon a time, someone buried an oil tank or dumped antifreeze all over the place.  If you want to build, you might have to go through quite a few expensive hurdles.  And if you wanted to sell the property, it may look less attractive for development to a potential buyer.  They would have to go through the same expensive hurdles as you.  The end result:  development is delayed or doesn’t happen at all.

So how can an Economic Development Committee help a developer when a question of potential environmental issues arise?

With an EPA-funded grant of $43,000. 

EPA BF AWP fact sheet.png

If we want to stimulate our local economy by attracting new businesses, we need to help property owners jump through regulatory hurdles in a positive, helpful way.  Creating a plan to help assess and, if necessary, clean up the site is much more helpful than it sounds.  If you’re not a developer, all this stuff may sound boring.  If you are a developer, all this stuff sounds expensive.  This is why the EPA provides Brownfields Area Wide Planning grants to communities.  It’s essentially a revitalization instrument that catalyzes the reuse of property which might otherwise not be cleaned up or developed.

Are you still with me?  Because there’s ice cream coming up!

Here’s the official explanation from the EPA’s brownfield grant funding page:

Brownfields area-wide planning (BF AWP) is a grant program which provides funding to conduct activities that will enable the recipient to develop an area-wide plan (including plan implementation strategies) for assessing, cleaning up and reusing catalyst/high priority brownfield sites. Funding is directed to a specific project area, such as a neighborhood, downtown district, local commercial corridor, old industrial corridor, community waterfront or city block, affected by a single large or multiple brownfield sites.

So what properties in Northfield are we talking about?  On June 1st, the Economic Development Committee  selected two site locations to receive planning support.  Six potential sites were identified a few months ago.

  • Former Bean Chevrolet
  • Former Nantanna Mill
  • Former Comfort Colors Property
  • 108 N. Main Street (next to Dollar General)
  • Mayo-NSB-East Street Block
  • Freightyard properties (former Northfield Wood Products area)

Site selection was based on a list of weighted criteria with a baseline of environmental uncertainty.  The results were pretty straightforward.

Nate’s Brownfield Selection Notes
  • What is the size of property?
  • Does the potential use of the property align with the Town Plan and V-DAT report?
  • Does the landowner want to participate, and is the landowner interested in developing the property?
  • Will a development on the property encourage additional improvements in the community?
  • What is the potential level of environmental assessment and cleanup?

After assessing these criteria, the Freightyard lot and Mayo-NSB-East Street Block were chosen.  (The outlined areas in the map below are approximate.)
AWP Sites

The next step is “community engagement.”  This is where the ice cream comes in!

On July 19th the Northfield Community Development Network, in partnership with the Planning Commission and Economic Development Committee, will host a fun event including bountiful mounds of ice cream (and perhaps healthier alternatives).

Some good folks from Stone Environmental will be there seeking your input for the Area Wide Plan.  They’ve already starting mapping things out.  Literally.  Here’s a link to a really cool “story map” they put together:

Go ahead, click the link and scroll down.  You’ll see a bit of history along the way.

You’ll also notice that the story isn’t quite done.  This is because you’re part of the story.  Your thoughts and ideas are relevant to the planning process.  Stone Environmental has been hired to talk with you, listen to your ideas and gather input as they create our Area Wide Plan.  And it’s all happening this summer.  The plan will be complete by September 31st.  When it’s done, then perhaps we’ll see some new developments in town — on the Freightyard and along the Mayo-East Street Block.

So please put July 19th in your calendar.  And remember:  Ice Cream.

Northfield Area Wide Plan

Darn Tough: A Comfort Colors Future?

Note:  This is Part 3 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”

Success can be a double-edged sword.  Comfort Colors has been acquired by Gildan Activewear Kurt Salmon

Everyone in Northfield should consider what Darn Tough Vermont  might look like ten years from now.Simply put, the same fate of Chouinard’s Comfort Colors may be waiting for Darn Tough Vermont.  As you may recall, Comfort Colors was purchased by the global clothing company Gildan in 2015, resulting in the loss of many jobs in Northfield.

Could the same thing happen to Darn Tough Vermont?  Sure.

If we look at one of Darn Tough’s leading competitors, we can get a glimpse of one possible future for Darn Tough Vermont.  SmartWool, another provider of premier outdoor sports socks, was founded in 1995 by ski instructors Peter and Patty Duke.  The company was purchased by Timberland in 2005, and which was then  acquired by VF Corporation in 2011.   Today, SmartWool is  a brand for a publicly traded company.

Smartwool to VF Brand

When SmartWool was purchased by VF Corporation,  residents in Steamboat Springs were uncertain about their future.   But SmartWool remains in the Colorado ski town and even expanded its headquarters in 2013.  SmartWool shows off remodeled headquarters in Steamboat Steamboat Pilot Today

This didn’t happen by accident.  The City of Steamboat Springs wanted to keep SmartWool around.  When SmartWool needed to build its new headquarters in a former airport terminal, the city loaned the company $450,000 toward the $2 million project.  It was a great economic development initiative.  The city continues to earn 3.5% interest on the loan and SmartWool continues to hire new employees.

The Smartwool story is very common.  The original owners may have a strong commitment to their community, but they also deserve the fruits of their labors when their brand becomes more valuable than their company’s operations.  When a small company creates a high-value brand and demonstrates consistent growth, it’s a cherry ready to be picked by a larger company.

Darn Tough Vermont shows all the signs of growing ripe for the picking, especially if the company achieves its goal of $100 million in annual revenue.  By then,  Ric Cabot may very likely get an offer no one would refuse, no matter how much commitment one might have to Northfield employees.Transaction

This is just a fact of life in a free economy.

So what would happen to local employees if VFC, Gildan or another global clothing company purchases Darn Tough Vermont?  Ordinarily, global companies might close up the local operation and transition to cheap, outsource labor.  But sometimes the “Made in the USA” slogan is worth the price of keeping operations in the US.  The question might be, would a hypothetical buyer keep the overhead of a manufacturing facility and employees, or would the hypothetical buyer contract  manufacturers in North Carolina or Tennessee? 


Northfield leaders should keep this story in the back of their minds while we celebrate Darn Tough Vermont’s current success.  Ric Cabot has been and will always be a model employer in Northfield, no matter what happens in the future.  If he gets an offer he can’t refuse — like a $100 million — we should applaud his amazing business turnaround story. Cabot rebuilt his family legacy and will have proven the kind of  darn tough company  resilience worthy of a case study in future business school classrooms.


There are various future directions for Darn Tough Vermont.  If we take the time to consider a potential Comfort Colors scenario, we can then take positive actions to make other scenarios more attractive.

For example, one of the most effective ways to keep a business local is to have the employees purchase the company.  An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is one way for an owner to retire very lucratively, selling the company to its workers.  An ESOP can even be as enticing as a $100 million carrot that may never come with its huge tax benefits, owner rewards, and worker stability.  Vermont happens to have quite a bit of expertise in forming successful ESOP owner succession plans, and in fact the Vemont Empoloyee Ownership Center is hosting its annual conference on June 2nd.

The bottom line is, there are many different ways to help facilitate a successful transition if we anticipate Darn Tough’s possible future.   On the other hand, if we choose to not think about the future with candor, Northfield may be caught by surprise like it was with the loss of Comfort Colors in 2015.

There are no judgments of good or bad to be made about any business in Northfield. The process we need to think about in economic development is strategic planning.  It’s possible to be very, very proud of Darn Tough Vermont and also imagine things being very, very  different ten years from now.

Thanks for reading this three part series and please feel free to leave a comment or send a note with your thoughts.



Darn Tough: Sophistication and Commitment

Note:  This is Part 2 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”

We Really Know SocksThe high-value Darn Tough brand has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York TimesFortune MagazineEsquire, Industry Week, as well as outdoor specialty media like Bicycle Retailer, Snowshoe Magazine, and went out of their way, coming to Northfield to create a video of the production process

There are many elements to the Darn Tough Vermont success story.   The down-home Vermont mystique for quality products and Yankee perseverance belies the level of sophistication behind the scenes.  Darn Tough was built on a top-flight branding strategy hatched in 2004.  It employs a  long-term public relations campaign helmed by Momentum Media PR .  It hires expert consultants to improve efficiency, cost-savings and supply chain management.  From Industry Week, March 9, 2015: How an American Sock Manufacturer Battled Its Way Back from Bankruptcy to Growth

“We begin with projections from the territories. We look at pre-season orders, and then set targets by sku of what we want to knit,” Cabot explained. “We can make real-time adjustments based on real-time demand, so the system is pretty robust, and it allows us to modify the schedule. If we think Glacier Socks are going to be a huge hit, we can adjust our orders because we do manufacturing right here.”

Darn Tough Vermont is pretty sophisticated on the business analytics side of things.  You don’t have to be an MBA student to understand the language and machinations of the global economy, but it helps.  Cabot is describing concepts like demand management, strategic sourcing, and responsive planning.  Let’s just say that behind every successful manufacturing enterprise, there’s some darn serious software solution.

Darn Tough’s business sophistication meets social commitment when we talk about Ric Cabot’s regard for family legacy and the livelihood of his employees.  Cabot has a bit of an old school sense of responsibility to the families he supports by way of employment.

“We know our employees are punching the clock for their spouse, their boyfriend, their kids, their elderly parents,” Cabot says in the Boston Globe piece.

darntough_harriets_general ad

This feels almost as warm and fuzzy – in a good way –  as a pair of his Merino wool and nylon socks in the middle of winter.