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Jim Kenyon: Hartland man’s yard full of scrap turned into a heap of trouble with the state

  • “To them, everything is junk,” said Ed Tobin about environmental regulators from the State of Vermont, who are calling for him to pay fines for operating an unlicensed scrap yard at his home in Hartland, Vt. Due to health problems that cause him to have numbness in his legs, Tobin takes frequent breaks to sit while walking his property on May 22, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ed Tobin, of Hartland, is facing more than $12,000 in fines from the State of Vermont for operating an unlicensed salvage yard. He says that the fines are unfair and that he's working on cleaning up the property while battling several health problems and surviving on a limited income from delivering cars for dealerships and from his partner's waitressing job. Tobin pages through photographs taken by regulators as evidence against him in his garage in Hartland, Vt., May 22, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ed Tobin breaks a window on a junk car so he can fill it with recyclables picked up from his property in Hartland, Vt., on May 22, 2019. He said that at $80 per ton and $5 for each of the aluminum wheels on the car, he might make up to $150 by selling the scrap. “Ain’t this an awful way to make a living?” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kelly DePalo, of Hartland, provides the bulk of the income for herself and her long-time partner Ed Tobin, 62, by working as a waitress. The pair is frugal and Tobin’s health problems prevent him from working at the pace of his younger years. DePalo gives Tobin a parting kiss before going to work May 22, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, August 10, 2019

Ed Tobin wasn’t expecting company the morning of Sept. 28, 2016, when two Vermont state environmental investigators motored up the steep, private road to his property in Hartland. A state police trooper pulled into Tobin’s driveway behind them.

The two men who worked for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, or ANR, for short, asked Tobin if they could look around a bit.

Go ahead, Tobin responded: “I have nothing to hide.”

Tobin had bought the 14-acre property, three-tenths of a mile off the Quechee Road, in the early 1980s. At the top of Independent Drive, a dead end, 3½ miles from the center of town, he built a log cabin.

Along with being an auto mechanic and trucker, Tobin sold junk vehicles for scrap. He collected old tires to resell to farmers for a buck apiece that they used to hold down the tarps covering their silage piles.

Tobin built a three-bay garage, where he worked mostly on hot rods, and in his words, “accumulated a lot of stuff” in more than 35 years. In addition to the junk vehicles and tires, mounds of rusted car parts and empty oil tanks litter the rocky landscape behind his garage.

On a recent sweltering afternoon, the 62-year-old Tobin, who has a long white beard, was tinkering in the garage. A 2-foot-tall speaker hooked up to an old radio blared Dartmouth’s student FM station, 99 Rock.

Dressed in loose cotton shorts, a black tank top and worn leather work boots with white socks, Tobin offered to show me around. Sumacs and tall weeds grew between abandoned SUVs and truck cabs.

“What you see is what they’re bitchin’ about,” Tobin said.

The two men from ANR stayed for about 45 minutes, and took plenty of photos, Tobin recalled.

That was nearly three years ago.

When ANR and Tobin couldn’t agree on a cleanup plan and whether he needed a state permit to operate a salvage yard, a lengthy legal battle ensued.

It wasn’t much of a fight — Tobin didn’t have an attorney. (He contacted several, but they were out of his price range, he said.)

At a February court hearing, in which Tobin represented himself, ANR sought $18,750 in administrative penalties for five alleged violations to state environmental regulations. Judge Thomas Walsh of the Environmental Division of Vermont Superior Court (better known as Environmental Court) sided with the state but reduced the penalty to $12,249.

When Tobin failed to abide by the judge’s order, ANR slapped a lien on Tobin’s property in late July.

How did it come to this?

It seems to me that Tobin’s case is rooted in a Vermont cultural clash that goes back 50 years or so, with no sign of letting up.

Tobin represents a slice of old-time Vermonters who don’t believe the government has the right to tell them what they can store on their property.

“The agency is moving forward in an attempt to get these sites cleaned up as efficiently as possible, but some folks don’t want to,” said Randy Miller, the ANR attorney in charge of Tobin’s case. “It’s a challenge.”

Vermont has roughly 60 permitted salvage yards that each pay the state up to $1,250 in annual licensing fees.

Vermont stepped up oversight of salvage yards about 10 years ago when oversight was transferred from what was then the Department of Transportation to ANR.

“Regulation of salvage yards is necessary to assure protection of the natural environment and protection of the public health,” ANR’s website says.

Still, ANR has its work cut out. The number of unpermitted salvage yards is anyone’s guess. State rules allow property owners up to three junk vehicles, but local zoning regulations can be more stringent.

In their daily travels, many Vermonters probably “pass by two or three properties that meet the definition” of a junkyard, said Marc Roy, who oversees the state’s salvage yard program.

In Hartland and other towns that haven’t adopted zoning regulations, the Ed Tobins of Vermont have been able to cling to their way of life longer than most.

But that’s changing.

Nate Stearns is a Norwich environmental lawyer. He’s not involved in Tobin’s case, but when I shared some of the details, he said it had a familiar ring.

“The old-school Vermont attitude that you can do what you want with your property” is being challenged more often by neighbors, Stearns said.

In today’s world, more people are of the belief that “if you don’t like what your neighbor is doing, call the state,” he said. “Neighbors have a lot of standing.”

Said Roy: “Most of the complaints we get (about a property) come from within the neighborhood.”

On Sept. 21, 2016, ANR’s Department of Environmental Conservation received a complaint about Tobin, concerning his use of a hazardous material and an alleged salvage yard that he operated on his property.

State environmental records show Tobin’s next-door neighbor, Marlene Murray, made the complaint. The following day, the state received an anonymous complaint along the same lines.

On Sept. 26, Hartland’s then-constable Tammie Stammers emailed ANR. Stammers wrote that she was passing along information given to her by a neighbor of Tobin’s as well as tidbits she had read on Facebook.

The complaints focused on Independent Drive, which has more than a half-dozen houses and mobile homes. The complainants said Tobin had dumped gallons of used motor oil on the narrow, gravel road.

“It sits in puddles in front of the house below us,” Murray, who has lived on Independent Drive for more than 25 years, wrote in a follow-up email to ANR. “It is being carried up and down the hill on the tires of every vehicle that drives through it. We can’t walk down the hill, nor can we walk our dogs because of the oil!

“Four wells are below this oil ... How can this possibly be OK?”

Murray and Stammers declined to be interviewed for this column. (Tobin is currently facing criminal charges, including stalking and aggravated disorderly conduct, after authorities allege he vandalized Murray’s car in response to her complaint; see sidebar.)

A week after receiving Murray’s initial complaint, ANR investigators Daniel Mason and Shawn Donovan made their house call. Environmental enforcement officers don’t need a warrant to inspect private property, providing they have the landowner’s permission, which Tobin had given.

Bringing along law enforcement — in this case, a state trooper — is “not the routine,” Roy told me. But if ANR has “some knowledge” that its investigators might not be well-received, “we want to be safe,” he added.

In her email to ANR, Stammers wrote that she was friends with one of Tobin’s neighbors, some of whom were “afraid of him as he has been violent in the past.”

Donovan and Mason, the ANR investigators, reported no problems with Tobin during their site visit.

Afterward, Mason wrote in his report that he and Donovan had checked out the oiled roadway. The liquid that Tobin had spread on the road appeared to be vegetable oil — not motor oil — that he bought by the barrel from a manufacturing company, which used it to cool machinery.

When vegetable oil, which is not a hazardous material, is mixed with re-ground asphalt, it acts like blacktop, Tobin told me. Along with helping prevent the road from washing out, vegetable oil helps reduce dust, he said.

Although the enforcement officers found no hazardous motor oil on the road, they didn’t leave empty-handed. They are allowed to expand the scope of their investigation, if “other violations are observed,” said Miller, the ANR attorney.

A week later, the Department of Environmental Conversation informed Tobin that he was breaking several Vermont hazardous waste management regulations and salvage yard rules, including having more than three junk or unregistered vehicles.

“During the site visit the Agency observed dozens of unregistered/junk motor vehicles being stored throughout the property as well as various piles of junk material and scrap metal,” Roy wrote. “A salvage yard permit has never been issued for this property.”

Investigators had also found “several areas of dark stained soils next to vehicles tipped on their side.”

From the beginning, Tobin has argued that he’s never operated a salvage yard, particularly in the last decade when he’s been in declining health.

“It was more of a transfer station,” he told me. Many of the junk cars, he bought. Others were dropped off by people just looking to get rid of their old vehicles. From time to time, salvage yard operators would then come in with portable car-crushing equipment to mash the vehicles into scrap that Tobin could sell.

But when the bottom fell out of the scrap metal market and his health began to decline, the junk on Tobin’s property piled up more than ever. “Some of these cars have been here for 10 years or more,” he said.

Bob Stacey, who retired as Hartland’s town manager in 2017 after 20 years, would visit Tobin’s property on occasion to encourage him to “clean it up a little bit.”

Said Stacey: “He understood what we wanted.” (In 2008, Hartland adopted a so-called junk ordinance, but it’s geared toward materials visible from a public roadway, which isn’t the case with Tobin’s property.)

Over the years, Tobin has found ways to help out the town. The volunteer fire department has held training sessions on his property, slicing up junk vehicles with metal-cutting tools to practice rescuing trapped car-crash victims.

“Ed has a heart of gold,” Stacey told me. “If someone needed help cleaning up their property, I’d mention it to him, and he’d just do it.”

Tobin grew up in Wilder. His dad was a maintenance worker at the now-shuttered Goodyear plant in Windsor, and his mother had a job with the phone company.

Tobin dropped out of school after ninth grade.

“I got a taste of money,” he said. “I just wanted to work.”

He found jobs on farms and construction sites.

“I was just a kid with a pair of hands,” he said.

Tobin was pretty skilled with those hands, showing a knack for fixing anything with an engine. By the late 1970s, he had set up a tripod engine hoist in his grandmother’s driveway, where he swapped out motors, replaced transmissions and fixed brakes at what he called the Fairweather Garage.

“I did all the work outdoors,” he said.

Tobin experienced a few scrapes with the law along the way. In his 20s, he got into a dispute with Hartford town officials, claiming he hadn’t been paid in full for a job.

“They owed me $800,” Tobin said.

When the town didn’t pay up, he “borrowed” a town backhoe to do some work on his property.

“I told them what I was going to do, and I did it,” he said.

A Windsor County judge wasn’t amused. Tobin spent 18 months behind bars on a theft charge.

In the early 1990s, Tobin was convicted of two misdemeanors — reckless driving and disturbing the peace — and had several charges dismissed, including receiving stolen property.

“He was someone who long before I knew him had gotten labeled a troublemaker,” said Will Hunter, who represented Tobin in the ’90s.

From what Hunter’s seen, however, Tobin has turned his life around.

“I look at Ed as a success story,” said Hunter, who no longer practices law.

Tobin put his self-destructive ways behind him about the time he met Kelly DePalo outside a deli shop in Rutland. DePalo lived above the deli, where Tobin grabbed a sandwich on trips to a nearby salvage yard.

DePalo liked his wit.

“That was the only thing,” she cracked.

They’ve been together for 25 years. Acquaintances describe DePalo, who worked for years as a bartender and is now a waitress, as a calming influence.

“He’s nothing like he used to be,” she said.

“I’m old now,” Tobin shot back.

Traipsing through Tobin’s backyard, I passed a 1996 Western Star 18-wheeler that no longer runs. “Miss Kell” was painted on the truck’s front fender.

“You always name your truck after your woman,” he said.

Years ago, along with scrap metal, Tobin hauled logs and wood chips. But the business “died when the sawmills went out,” he said.

For the last decade, Tobin has battled serious health problems, including a heart attack in 2010. He’s also dealt with a blood clot in his leg. A long scar runs down his left leg from where a stent was inserted to combat poor circulation.

In 2012, he landed in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with a life-threatening virus from which he never fully recovered. The circulation problems in his legs make walking a chore. By early afternoon, he’s often too fatigued to continue working.

When the state argues that he’s operating a salvage yard, “they’re making it something; it’s not,” Tobin said. “I’ve been sick for the last 10 years, so not a lot has been going on here.”

Although ANR placed a lien on Tobin’s property, it’s not the practice to “push actions to foreclosure,” said Miller, the agency’s attorney. A lien safeguards the state’s ability to collect unpaid penalties in the event a property changes hands, he said.

The state has also notified Tobin and DePalo (she’s also on the property deed) that they could be sent to a debt collection company, if the environmental fines aren’t paid.

When the two state environmental investigators pulled into his driveway nearly three years ago and asked to look around, Tobin couldn’t imagine it turning out the way it has.

Said Tobin: “We had no idea what we were up against.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.