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:
- The trees were already set to be tapped and a vote to remove tubing would cost Turkey Hill Maple a lot of money.
- The opportunity to generate long-term revenue on land “not being used” would be good for the budget.
- One member said he knew the installer and attested to his personal integrity and quality of work.
- 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?