Tree cutting is physically dangerous, but it's legally tricky too
Cutting trees is a dangerous job. Power saws, heavy equipment, rough terrain, and pressure to work quickly push the profession toward the top of those "dangerous job" lists every year.
But on Martha's Vineyard, where conservation lands dot the maps, complex easements accompany many real estate deals, and scenic water views have a real and quantifiable value, clearing trees and brush comes with risks in addition to the physical danger. Especially if you cut the wrong tree in the wrong place.
Island tree professionals who handle clearing and cutting work are well aware of the legal risks involved, and despite efforts to get assurances before they fire up the saws, sometimes they are caught in the middle of disputes between bickering neighbors, town commissions, and conservation organizations.
At the same time, trying to find out what can be cut and what can't, or getting permission to clear restricted land, can be a long, difficult, and confusing process.
"You set yourself up for criminal charges, not to mention a lot of ill will," said Scott McArthur of McArthur Tree Care. "It's serious business, as it should be. To follow the rule of the law, it's a real pain in the neck. One of our basic traits as human beings is to take the lazy route, but you can get in a lot of hot water. You set yourself up for disaster."
Laziness, or even honest mistakes, can be very expensive. In 2005, the town of Aquinnah filed complaints in Edgartown District Court against homeowner Mark Friedman and Vineyard Gardens after Mr. Friedman hired the landscaping company to prune and top about 125 trees. The town sought fines, charging the landscaper and the landowner with failure to get the proper permits. In an out of court settlement, Mr. Friedman agreed to pay $20,000 for the mistake, while Vineyard Gardens had to pay $15,000, and work to restore the land.
Experience has taught Tom Robinson of Island Timber to be very careful. He cited one example where routine clearing to improve views had been done for years. When the abutting property changed hands, the contractor didn't know about it, and ran into trouble when the new owner objected.
Landowners who are unaware, or are willing to ignore restrictions and boundaries can complicate routine decisions for the contractor. So do complex social and family relationships, in small communities where everybody knows your name, and often they know your business, too.
"Sometimes there's pressure to be talked into something, you want the work," said Mr. Robinson. "It's always good to check, even if you run the risk of offending the person."
He once relied on intuition and feel, especially if he knew all the parties involved, but those instances are getting rarer.
"Nowadays, I almost always check," said Mr. Robinson. "If there's a question of the end of a person's property, I go down to town hall and check the assessors map, and find those boundaries."
Mark DiBiase, general manger of Bartlett Tree Experts, often sends a letter to the property owner, asking for a release of liability, or asking them to go through the process of getting a view easement.
"Some neighbors get along, some don't," said Mr. DiBiase. "I always recommend to get a release of liability. Then you have it in writing."