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Ducks and cannabis converge in Essex Junction lawsuit pitting state against city

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ESSEX JUNCTION — Bright bracelets hang on the wire door to Jason Struthers’ duck coop. They’re relics of a time before neighborly relationships on a small cul-de-sac close to Essex High School turned sour.

Since last summer, Struthers has had a license to grow cannabis in his backyard on Taft Street, where he also farms vegetables and raises some 30 ducks. The ducks provide eggs — which he sells along with the cannabis and veggies — and manure to fertilize the strain. He sells the cannabis to about a dozen dispensaries. Those bracelets on the coop came from two girls next door who used to play with the birds, he said.

But the situation around Struthers, his weed and his ducks has evolved into yelling matches, lawsuits, letters to legislators and a neighborhood on edge. Local officials and neighbors tried in August to shut down the cannabis operation before admitting they had little remedy to fight Struthers’ Tier-1 state license. Local officials later renewed the license. Then on Sept. 21 the city’s development review board voted to prohibit Struthers from having ducks in a residential area.

The case over his half-acre lot could pit state against local jurisdiction and call into question the implications of recent statewide housing initiatives. Late last month Struthers filed a lawsuit contesting the review board’s decision, claiming only the state can regulate agriculture. He claims in the suit that he’s designated as a farm by the state, and therefore the city can’t regulate his ducks.

Struthers sees his farming as a right — and as a way of life. He suffered a skydiving injury in 2011, he said, that left him disabled, and farming is the only work he can see himself doing. “It was just an instrumental part of my recovery,” he said. The land he farms is where he grew up, where both his parents died, he said.

His neighbors, and local officials, see it differently. “It’s more him putting up his middle fingers to everybody,” said Jason Hemenway, whose backyard borders Struthers’, characterizing the cannabis growing.

The review board’s September decision came after Stephen and Sharon Padnos, neighbors of Struthers, appealed a previous decision allowing his ducks.

In the Sept. 21 review board meeting, officials ruled that Struthers is not allowed to have ducks on his property because he lives in an R-1 residential area. Board members said they have the right to enforce zoning laws about livestock while acknowledging the regulation of cannabis was a separate matter.

Struthers says the city is out of its jurisdiction by trying to regulate his ducks. State law says municipalities cannot regulate agricultural practices. Local officials claim they aren’t regulating Struthers’ farming — just where he can have his ducks.

Struthers’ case could set a legal precedent for other ambiguities between the state and local regulations.

For Struthers, regulation of his ducks seems like de-facto regulation of his weed growing. The manure from his ducks, as fertilizer, is crucial to his strain, he said. Duck manure doesn’t need to be fermented or composted, explained Struthers. “It’s really beneficial. It saves a lot of labor.”

Sparing labor makes a big difference for him. When Struthers sustained his spinal cord injury, he said he “was laid up for a couple years and unable to do anything.” Before the injury he was a skydiving instructor for 20 years, he said, with 5,500 skydives and 130 base jumps.

Since then, farming has been a way for Struthers to cope.

“I like the discipline of it,” said Struthers. “When you’ve got a shattered spine, it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel good. I don’t want to do my PT right now.’ But when something’s going to die because you don’t do your chores, you have to do it.”

Growing cannabis was a dream of his, he said. When he was growing up he had a blood vessel wrapped around his intestine that made it hard for him to eat, he said, something only smoking weed relieved.

“It was the first time I felt actual hunger in probably four years,” he said. “It was just an amazing event for me.”

Clashes with neighbors have been ongoing. Struthers claims he’s been reported for an unregistered vehicle, been the subject of unreasonable noise complaints and had neighbors send the fire department to his house.

Struthers hasn’t been a saint, neighbors claim. In city council and review board meetings, neighbors have mainly complained about the noise of Struthers’ ducks, the smell of his cannabis and manure and his proximity to Essex High School.

In response, city council president Raj Chawla wrote to state representatives on behalf of the council late last month, urging them to amend state cannabis laws and allow municipalities to zone cannabis growing. The council echoed concerns of Struthers’ neighbors, claiming in the letter that he operates “within the 500 (foot) buffer of a school property” — a reference to regulations that only apply to cannabis retailers, not growers.

The letter also singled out Gov. Phil Scott’s June signing of S.100, also known as the HOME Act, a bill aimed at creating more affordable housing by rolling back certain local development restrictions. The HOME Act, among other things, effectively legalizes the development of duplexes anywhere residential development is allowed. It paves the way for increased density where properties are served by municipal water and sewer infrastructure. The act has already drawn criticism that it is a state effort to supersede local zoning.

Problems like those around Struthers’ property could intensify if developers take advantage of the HOME Act’s opportunity for increased housing density, the council wrote in the lett

Neighbors have more qualms with Struthers than those they’ve mentioned in meetings. Hemenway said Struthers once processed a dead deer on the fence line with the Padnoses as an intimidation tactic. Struthers said he processed it on the fence line because he needed to hang it from his tree, not as a personal slight.

Struthers expressed frustration that neighbors seemed eager to tattle to the city, rather than talking to him first.

Stephen and Sharon Padnos said they’ve tried that. One summer Sharon was gardening alone in the backyard and asked Struthers to turn down his music, she said.

“She was glad the fence was there because she thought that if it wasn’t he seemed so angry that he might’ve come over and hit her,” said Stephen.

Sharon agreed, saying Struthers, “more than yelled.”

Sharon called the police that day, she said, but decided not to file a report. After the couple complained to city councilors, a neighbor down the road heard Struthers again yelling at Sharon when she was alone in the backyard gardening, and so did Stephen who was using power tools in the garage, the couple said.

Struthers admitted he may have raised his voice but said he was not yelling or screaming and was never contacted by the police

“He is not somebody that you can actually have a civil conversation with,” said Hemenway. “Every time we do have a conversation, it turns into a screaming match.”

The relationships haven’t always been hostile. When Struthers’ mom died in 2019, the Padnoses wrote him a card with their condolences, said Sharon.

“We don’t like contentious situations,” said Sharon Padnos, expressing the couple saw their complaints as a last resort. “If you don’t complain to the city, the city will do nothing,” said her husband.

Struthers has a different view of their actions: “I think they’re lying about what I’m doing and trying to get me in trouble,” he said. He claimed the couple once called the police on him two times in three days.

Hemenway said he and other neighbors were unhappy the city would allow a Tier 1 cannabis farm within 500 feet of the public high school. The Padnoses, Hemenway and other neighbors have complained extensively about the smell of both the cannabis and the ducks in city meetings, along with the animals’ sound.

Attempting to appease his neighbors, Struthers said he replaced almost all of his birds with Muscovy ducks, a breed that makes very little noise.

Although part of Struthers’ livelihood is in the hands of the courts, he seemed relaxed and confident things will go his way. “I’m not trying to have a negative impact on the community,” he said.

The three colored bracelets still hang on his coop door after years, making a little jangle every time he opens the door. “What I do makes me happy,” said Struthers. “I’m in the sun, I’m not depressed, I’m fit, I feel good, and I enjoy life.”

He can enjoy life as much as he wants, neighbors figure. But “he should be following the rules just like everyone else does,” said Stephen Padnos. “And those rules say he just can’t do this thing in this location.”


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