March is Maple Month!

Pullman & Comley - School Law

Pullman & Comley - School Law

A Connecticut board of education frequently manages the most acreage and employs the most people of any business in the community.  While this column usually focuses upon legal issues concerning the education of students, and the employment of people who deliver those educational services, there are myriad reasons boards of education consult with their attorney.  This article is about acreage, and a possible use of a natural resource.  The State of Connecticut has excellent VoAg institutions that concern themselves with farming and land use.  But this doesn’t mean that school districts are excluded from that domain.

Consider the vast quantity of maple trees growing on property under the control of Connecticut boards of education.  The Governor each year, by law, proclaims the month of March to be Connecticut Maple Month.  As Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-29a, (80) provides, such a proclamation is “. . . to recognize the continued contribution of maple producers in the state who perpetuate a cherished New England tradition and who positively impact our economy, environment and way of life.”

A regional school district was recently approached by a farmer doing business in one of the component towns in the region, who requested permission to come on to district property for the purpose of tapping a group of maple trees found in a naturally occurring maple grove, also known as a sugar bush, for the purpose of producing maple syrup.  After consulting with the Board’s insurance carrier and its attorney, the Board agreed to issue a permit to that farmer, for that purpose.  Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (“DEEP”) has developed a Forest Products Harvesting Permit that the State of Connecticut uses.  The State typically charges 25 cents per tap, although this school district decided not to charge anything.  We modeled the district’s permit after the one used by the State.

Among the terms and conditions that the permittee, i.e., the farmer, must meet is the requirement that trees be a minimum of 12 inches in diameter for one tap; trees 19 inches or greater may have two taps.  The purpose behind this requirement is contained in the Connecticut Maple Syrup Producers Manual, Production & Quality Control Guidelines.  In recent years, maple trees throughout most of the northeastern United States have been subject to severe stresses from gypsy moths, pear thrips, pollution and weather.  As a result, tapping guidelines have become more conservative to avoid overstressing the maple trees.

Although the liability issues of the landowner are addressed in Connecticut General Statutes Section 52-557k, “Liability of landowner who allows persons to harvest firewood, fruits or vegetables or engage in maple-sugaring activities” the landowner/board of education is also well advised to include terms and conditions regarding liability insurance and indemnification as part of any maple sugaring permit.  Permits generally run for one year and can be terminated as specified in the permit.  In some cases, a permittee may be limited to using the property only during certain months of the year and must remove tubing after the maple sugaring season has concluded.  You may find that if the location is remote enough, the tubing can be left up year-round, provided the permittee understands and assumes the risk of any liability, and vandalism.

One August, while travelling with my family in northern Vermont, I came across a roadside maple syrup stand that attracted the attention of passing cars by using a machine that created clouds of steam to entice tourists, presumably, to witness maple syrup production and, of course, to purchase some tasty maple souvenirs.  Did you notice I mentioned August?  A local Vermonter would almost certainly have smiled to see the clouds of steam in August, aware that the maple sugaring season had long since passed.  Sometimes, the next generation needs to be educated about things not always found between the covers of a book.  A properly maintained sugar bush on school property could present a wonderful learning opportunity – you decide.  It’s Maple Month!!

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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