Town Contract with Turkey Hill Maple

Here’s an update on “Sweet Deal?  Maple Producer to Tap Town Forest” regarding a 20-acre mistake on the part of Turkey Hill Maple, and the contract the company requested from the Town of Northfield for use of the Town Forest.

It appears that a 5-year contract has  been awarded to Turkey Hill Maple.  I’ve posted a copy of the full agreement here: Turkey Hill Maple contract

I have more concerns about this than I did earlier.  And it’s not about trees or maple syrup.  I’m wondering whether or not the Town followed an adequate process and whether or not we are seeing best practices in how the Selectboard makes decisions.

Here are some red flags I’m seeing.

 Legality.  The Town should have taken a step back to ask whether there are legal questions about the commercial use of public resources prior to voting in favor of a contract.  It turns out, there may be legal issues which, if challenged, could cost the Town legal expenses and potentially render the contract null and void.

Conflict of Interest.  A selectboard member cited a personal relationship with an employee of Turkey Hill Maple as a basis for his support of the decision to negotiate a contract with the company.  This is the definition of an “indirect personal interest” as described in the Selectboard Handbook, page 21:

“A conflict may be present when a local official acts on a matter in which the member’s judgment may be affected because of a family or personal relationship, or membership in some organization, and a desire to help that person or organization further its own interests.”

Input from the community.  A commercial contract in which one company benefits from a public resource should involve some input from the community.  As you may have noticed in the comments section in my first post on this subject, use of the Town Forest is a matter of interest and there are diverse views which should have been considered.

Role of the Advisory Committee.  The Town Forest is one of the primary advisory areas for the Northfield Conservation Committee.  The NCC wasn’t informed about the pending contract until after the Feb 28th Selectboard vote.  Upon learning about the proposal, the NCC submitted a Tree Tapping Memo for the March 9th Selectboard meeting, concluding:  “Should the town want to look into opening the forest to this kind of activity in the future, a policy should first be put in place to ensure the forest resources are treated responsibly and in a manner that the town’s residents wholeheartedly support.”

These are my thoughts.  As you may recall from my first post, my initial question was, “How would you feel if someone set up sugaring operations on 20 acres of your property by mistake — then asked you to sign a contract?”

But there’s a bigger problem here.

For me, the issue isn’t about whether trees should be tapped in the Town Forest or not. What I’m seeing here is a systemic problem in how we as a Town govern ourselves and make decisions.  There have been controversies and mistakes in the past which were completely preventable if the Board had followed a process using best practices in governance.

More simply put, we need to “Do it Once and Do it Right.”

How does the board do it once and do it right?  Well, my first recommendation is that all board members annually attend professional development opportunities provided by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), but I’ll save that for another post.  In the meantime, here are some basic recommendations.

Before the Selectboard makes a decision, it needs to ask a couple of questions, like:

  • Is this what the people of Northfield want?
  • Do we have the authority to make this decision?  Do we need to look at state policy?
  • How have other communities approached this issue?
  • What are some legal issues we haven’t thought of?  Are there any land mines we might step on?
  • Does any board member present a conflict of interest?

I’m sure I’ll learn quite a bit over the next 3 years and I certainly don’t’ feel as if I have all the answers on the subject of local governance.  I just think we can do better.

How do you feel about all this? 

Are you satisfied with how the deal was struck with Turkey Hill Maple?  Do you think the process is adequate, or do you want to see more?  What do you think could have been done better?   Leave a comment!

As for the specifics regarding the Town Forest and the Turkey Hill Maple contract — if you’re upset, then you need to speak up.  Not just to me — to the entire Selectboard.

You can send your thoughts to:  selectboard@northfield.vt.us

 

The Northfield Community Development Network

If you’re learning about NCDN for the first time, Welcome! For those who attended the meeting in January, you may wonder what’s been going on since then.
The answer is, quite a bit! While we promised monthly meetings, our Weekly Workgroup decided to wait just a bit so we can deliver a solid platform and tangible examples of NCDN’s initial direction.

But first, here’s a primer for the uninitiated:

2015 wasn’t a great year for Northfield — until December 11th when a group of 14 people, including Selectboard member Matt Gadbois, met to discuss the formation of an economic development organization at the Brown Public Library Community Room.  The initial idea was to reboot the dormant Northfield Business & Professional Association, but former president David Blythe recommended starting a new organization for legal and logistical reasons.
Momentum built, and on January 14th, the group grew to more than 30, representing a cross-section of people with a broad range of professional and business expertise.  Selectboard member David Maxwell joined Gadbois, updating folks about the Town’s Economic Development Committee.   Local business owners, Norwich Faculty and Staff, new and long-time residents came together in agreement to form a non-profit organization.  One with the authority and resources to take real action.
This is how the Northfield Community Development Network (NCDN) was conceived.
On May 19th, we will meet again for the official launch of our new organization.
With a current body of almost 40 people and a Weekly Workgroup of 6, NCDN has incorporated and is getting down to business.  Carolyn Stevens, CPA, has agreed to serve as Treasurer.   Attorney Bill Smith is guiding us through our application for tax-exempt status from his office on Depot Square.  Many thanks, Carolyn and Bill!
As a network organization, we are beginning to meet with local organizations and ask a simple question:  “What can we do to help?”  We want to help create a collaborative environment among local groups as each one does its part to help improve our community.
But networking and collaboration are just starting points.  NCDN is committed to economic growth and vitality.  We need to address housing and we need business development.  This type of work requires a budget and staff.  We’ll get there.  For now, we’re building our network and forming a base of support.
So, here’s what’s happening behind the scenes!

Road Sign Project  NCDN will be collaborating with Leslie Striebe and and Emily Wrigley of Go!Northfield on the visual design (not structural) of road signs to be placed at the North and South entrypoints along Route 12. Leslie has worked tirelessly on this project for coming on to two years.  We’re excited to work with Leslie and Emily as this project comes closer to completion, and other projects in the years to come.

Banner Project:  Sally Davidson and Wendy Rae of the Recreation Committee have proposed a road banner project and we are happy to work with them as well. Ideally, Go!Northfield’s signs and the Rec Committee’s banners should be visually compatible. This is a great example of how NCDN can help coordinate similar work by local groups and facilitate projects across the community.

Tree Planting Project:  NCDN has joined the Conservation Committee on the development of a tree planting project.  Pamela Knox of the Conservation Committee has agreed to become our Network Liaison so we have ongoing cross-communication as the Conservation Committee proceeds with its important work.  Ruth Ruttenberg, also of the Conservation Committee, will be writing a grant application to help fund the project.

Northfield Rotary Club:  Bob Doyon and Nicole DiDomenico have agreed to Network partnership and serve as NCDN liaisons.  The Rotary Club has provided years of public service and we look forward to joining their efforts.

056VT Television Show:  On March 21st, professional videographer and television show producer, Andrea Melville, is launching her new interview-format show on Channel 7.  While we don’t have a project with 056VT yet, NCDN looks forward to a working relationship with  056VT. Please join Andrea at the Community Room Monday, March 21st at 7:00 pm for her live debut performance!

Norwich University:  While we don’t have official Network Liaisons with Norwich University at this time, NCDN membership includes several faculty and staff employees in various departments.  NCDN is poised to facilitate communication and potential projects of mutual benefit for Norwich and Northfield.  We look forward to an opportunity to formalize relationships with both the university and the town as NCDN strives to improve local vitality.

Next Meeting:  The Weekly Workgroup decided to hold the next meeting when we have tangible work to share, like final logo designs, etc.  The tent  We are reaching out to the Director of Revitalizing Waterbury as a potential speaker.  RW is an official non-profit partner with the Town of Waterbury.  RW’s work has led to a substantial rebound.  Their work can inform NCDN as we move forward to improve local vitality.

Thank You’s:  NCDN would like to thank everyone for their continued support.  Special thanks to Vince and Norma at the Falls General Store for providing meeting space at the yoga studio upstairs.  Thanks also to the Norwich University Office of Communication for the same courtesy.  Finally, special thanks to our Network Liaisons and new Treasurer, Carolyn Stevens.
Now it’s time for me to ask, “What can you do to help?
Right now, we’d love to hear from you.  And we’d love it if you help spread a good word about NCDN.  So it’s simple, really.  Fill out the contact form and talk to your friends!  And let us know what you think.
— Nate Freeman, President.

Sweet Deal? Maple Producer to Tap Town Forest

Northfield Trails and Maps   TrailLink

On February 12th, a Barre-based commercial maple producer, Turkey Hill Maple, self-reported an error in setting up part of their operations on the Northfield Forest, which of course is public property.  Owners Judith and Howard Anderson wrote in a letter to the town:

“About a week ago we found out we over-reached our line system to include a few trees that belong to the town.  …I think we misread the map and delineation of property lines.  To confirm that, our installer met with the Surveyor yesterday that produced the Town Maps years ago.  I’m wondering if it is possible to get a temporary lease for at least this year to tap those trees in return for payment to the town.”

The Andersons emphasized that no trees had been tapped — however, the tubing running from tree to tree had already been installed.

How far did they overreach the boundary into the Town Forest?  About 20 acres and enough trees to provide 1500-2000 taps.

Town Manager Jeff Schulz raised concern that the value of the trees might be reduced should any be damaged in the tapping process.  He also noted that he found no examples of such arrangements on public land elsewhere.

The Selecboard discussed the request on February 23rd (prior to my term on the Board) and voted 4-0 authorizing the Town Manager to negotiate a lease agreement with Turkey Hill Farm, contingent on a forester’s report and proof of liability insurance.

I learned about the maple tapping request on March 4th, the Friday before my first meeting in my 3-year term on the Selectboard.  A follow-up discussion about the deal was on the agenda.

When I read the agenda and materials, I wondered if the folks on the Conservation Committee knew about the proposal.  The Town Forest is part of the Committee’s scope of work, so it seemed as if they should be informed.  In a brief phone conversation with Committee Chair, Pam Knox, said, No, they knew nothing about sap lines being strung or trees which were ready to tap.

At the March 8th Selectboard meeting, I raised questions about the amount of property which had been encroached, the proposed $1 price per tap for a 10-year contract and the lack of policy regarding commercial use of public property.  My fellow members replied that they had already given an approval to Turkey Hill Maple.  The contract, however, had not yet been signed.  I asked if any other maple producers knew of the agreement or if the Selectboard had contacted the Conservation Committee.  The answer was, “No,” to both.

The rationale for the go-ahead came from three members, with four distinct responses:

  1. The trees were already set to be tapped and a vote to remove tubing would cost Turkey Hill Maple a lot of money.
  2. The opportunity to generate long-term revenue on land “not being used” would be good for the budget.
  3. One member said he knew the installer and attested to his personal integrity and quality of work.
  4. Another member asserted the tapping of trees couldn’t harm high value trees.

However, the Conservation Committee offered observations and provided suggestions in a letter submitted to the Board:

“After doing some quick research, we found that there are apparently some towns that have opened up their forests for this type of activity, but only after they have put in place effective policies.  In developing a policy, the town’s residents should be asked to provide input as to whether this is a use that is in keeping with their goals and vision for the Town Forest. …Policies may include a fair bidding process, a lease, and agreed upon details as to how and where the activity should take place.”

The letter went on to say that the value of the lease should be $1-$2 per tap.

So this has been an interesting subject.  For me, I have to say my concern isn’t about whether or not the town should lease its trees for maple production, or what a policy should look like.

My primary concern is about a huge mistake over property boundaries.

Imagine you owned a piece of land somewhere out in the back-forty which you never used, except to maybe walk through from time to time.

Now imagine someone approached you, saying, “Oops, I ran my sugaring operation onto 20 acres of your property by mistake.  Can we sign a lease?”

What would you think?

 

Appointed Positions

Planning & Zoning — Please consider your role.

On Tuesday I will be attending my first meeting as a member of the Selectboard. I will begin posting regular updates to help keep you informed of my work.

But first, let’s talk about you.

If you interested in change, please consider playing a role. While some positions are elected, members of several governing bodies are appointed. Of these, I hope you consider applying for the following:

Planning Commission. One (4) year appointment; One (3) year appointment
Zoning Board of Adjustment. One (5) year appointment; One (4) year appointment

These are very important positions because, on Tuesday, there is a resolution to create a Design Review Board. The DRB membership will be composed of current members of the ZBA. Whether or not the DRB is created, these roles are important because they govern the development of the town.

Please consider requesting an appointed position. All positions up for appointment by the end of the month can be found here: http://northfield-vt.gov/text/Current_Notices/2016%20_Town_Appointments.pdf