By Curt Peterson
HARTLAND—In 2020, 330 million Americans registered 291 million cars and light trucks. Pre-Covid new car sales were about 19 million. Automobile manufacturing provides 190,000 U.S. jobs.
A lack of public transportation, sparse population and significant distances between point A and point B make a vehicle necessary in Vermont.
But cars wear out, sometimes decommissioned by crashes. While packing lots and promoting new vehicles is no problem, many towns have strict rules about lots full with broken ones.
We just want them out of our sight.
Dave’s Skunk Hollow Auto Sales and Repairs in Hartland is one such local business that has many retired and wrecked cars.
Dave Cowdry, 78, started Skunk Hollow many years ago on Route 12. He developed a business buying older vehicles and rehabilitating them for sale, and doing repairs for “local people with low budgets.” He bought rust-free cars from Connecticut, and accumulated an inventory of “like makes and models” for rehab and repair parts.
Cowdry’s current status is, “business non-grata” in Hartland. At one time, according to Hartland town manager David Ormiston, the state considered “Dave Cowdry’s the largest ‘unlicensed salvage yard’ in the state.”
Ormiston estimates Cowdry had more than 150 unregistered vehicles on his property then. “But his problem isn’t with [Hartland],” Ormiston said. “His problem is with the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation.”
The DEC gave Cowdry an ultimatum: Get rid of all but three unregistered vehicles in fairly short order or, DEC suggested, obtain a salvage yard permit or a dealer’s license.
“A salvage yard is a scrap yard,” Cowdry told the Mountain Times. “What we do here isn’t a scrap yard, but the state regulates us under the scrap yard statute.”
But, he added, a dealer’s license requires you to sell at least 13 cars every year, a tough goal for Skunk Hollow Auto.
Cowdry’s son Alan, 50, has taken over the business, but Dave still owns the land on which most of the offending vehicles are stored, putting him in the DEC’s crosshairs.
“I’ve been working for a long time to come into compliance,” he said. “Over four or five years I’ve cut down trees, pulled out cars that had been in the woods forever, and moved earth to where we face the highway, trying to shield the unregistered vehicles from view.”
He demonstrated how he raised the horizon from Route 12 up 16 feet.
He has also been steadily removing vehicles, in many cases, ironically, sending them to actual scrap yards.
“I was moving right along on the project, then Covid-19 hit, and there was no money. That put the brakes on right there.”
Cowdry decided to apply for a salvage yard permit, and filed a state-required application with Hartland’s Select Board. The permit would cover 50,000 sq. ft. of his 11-acre property, including son Alan’s garage and room for the allowed number of visible unregistered cars. If the board approves, Dave Cowdry will send the application on to the DEC for its blessing.
Meanwhile, Cowdry will continue removing the unregistered vehicles from the rest of the property. He’s also considering building some structures to store his unregistered classic cars, which would satisfy the state’s “out of sight” requirement.
“I have a 25-year old truck I use just to snowplow my property,” he said. “They want me to register and insure it, or I have to put it inside a building when I’m not plowing. Ridiculous.
“In Vermont, in order to be registered, a car has to be inspected and insured. Some of these vehicles won’t pass inspection the way they are, and I can’t afford to insure them,” he said.
Ormiston said if the town approves the permit, the state can still do whatever it wants with the application. The two approvals are totally separate, although Cowdry has to obtain town approval before sending the application to the state.
Cowdry feels the Select Board will probably turn down his application.
“If they do turn me down,” he said, “there will be a lot of publicity.”