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Vermont's Sleeping Roads

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN sleeping roads wake up? Do they become beauties or nightmares? Vermont is about to find out.

Until recently, the state's sleeping roads had been hibernating in a dormant law that says that any road ever established by a town remains a town road unless it has been officially discontinued. That sounds innocuous, but beneath every town's network of streets lies a spidery palimpsest of abandoned lanes that once connected farms or districts, but faded into the landscape and vanished from maps long ago. More pertinently, they vanished from property deeds. Yet according to the law, many of these forgotten roads -- also called "ghost roads," "phantom roads," "invisible roads," and "ancient roads" -- are merely sleeping and can be resurrected by town decree even if they lie on private property.

When rubbed against present-day Vermont, this law became a friction stick. Many of the state's growing population of retirees, second-home owners, and new professionals had posted their property, which didn't sit well with Vermonters who had always been able to hunt that upland or snowmobile that meadow or hike that old path through the woods.

So a few towns began using the old law to claim ancient rights-of-way on private property, with predictable results: shock, anger, lawsuits. Title searches in Vermont typically go back 40 years, not 200, so titles that had seemed clean were suddenly cloudy, casting a pall over the state's lucrative real estate market. In 2004, Vermont's largest title insurance company threatened to stop writing policies in three towns where officials were pressing claims about sleeping roads. In the most notorious example, Chittenden denied a family's application for a housing addition, asserting that an invisible old road ran through the home and remained a right-of-way, even though it hadn't been used or maintained for 170 years.

Hoping to calm and clarify things, the Vermont legislature has given towns until February 10, 2010, to identify claimable sleeping roads and add them to official town highway maps. After that, any unmapped roads will be classified as "unidentified corridors," and on July 1, 2015, towns will forfeit their rights to them. It's a last chance for towns to find and recover old routes that might someday benefit recreation, conservation, or development. That's why town officials and volunteers all over Vermont are now blowing dust from leather-bound volumes labeled "Road Surveys" and "Deeds," and trying to decipher ornate penmanship from 150 or 200 years ago.

IN THE TOWN OF HUNTINGTON, these volunteers call themselves the Ancient Roads Committee. Its 10 members include several retirees, a forester, a GIS (geographic information systems) analyst, a contractor/ski patroller, and a biologist for the Audubon Society. They've lived in town for anywhere from five years to a lifetime and were drawn to the project by their love of history and of Huntington. "I don't think any of us gives two hoots about title companies," says Aaron Worthley, the GIS analyst. "For us it's about old maps, history, and a way to better understand the town."

Some towns are researching only a few lost lanes, but the Huntington group decided to track down every road in their town's history. In the Huntington vault, where the original charter signed by King George III in 1763 leans, framed, against a wall, they found several volumes of old road surveys. The earliest covered 1791 to 1795.

They scanned everything into computers, transcribed the handwritten descriptions, and translated old survey measurements from "rods" and "chains" into GIS displays. Then they compared their findings with current maps. By midsummer of 2008, they'd worked their way to 1899 and had identified 138 roads. Most were still in use. About 20 had been discontinued, and another dozen were sleeping: abandoned, but locatable through survey measurements, historical maps, old deed books and plats, and field work.

"And then there are 10 roads we have no idea where they are," says George Mincar, the committee's chairperson. "We have only a shape for them," plotted by GIS. "The original owners were well documented in 1850s and 1860s, but then the land might have been subdivided and sold, so we have to backtrack. If we can identify a starting point or an end point, we might be able to pin down those roads." That was the task on a July evening last year in Huntington's small town office, where committee members were working on the puzzler they called "Unknown Road #62."

In addition to researching roads, the committee sent a questionnaire to every Huntington household and landowner. It asked what people wanted to do, if anything, about the town's ancient roads. Last November, the committee presented all its findings to the select board, which ultimately will decide which roads to return to the map.

The group knows that their work could lead to hard feelings among their neighbors, which pains them. "We have several landowners who feel strongly about private property rights," says committee member Lucinda Hill.

Bart Howe, another member, chuckles. "And we have others," he says, "who, when they hear they might have a road through their land, will become strong about property rights."

Howe and another committee member turned out to have sleeping roads on their own properties. "Personally, I'd prefer it not be classified an ancient road," he says. "But as a member of the committee, I'm neutral."

"It's an interesting tension," says Worthley. "I've changed my opinion half a dozen times. For me, it keeps coming down to the fact that when the roads are gone this time, they're gone forever, so this is a way to hold the option."

For instance, the committee discovered an ancient road that leads to the town forest, now surrounded by private property with no public access. The current landowner lets the town in, but claiming the old road would provide a clear benefit to the town.

On the other hand, one farmer in Huntington was shocked to learn of a sleeping road on her property. If the town claims it, she could have snowmobiles or off-road vehicles roaring through a livestock pasture and past her back door. The town can specify that an ancient right-of-way remain open only for hikers. "But once it's on a map," notes Mincar, "people might use it anyway, and you'd also have enforcement issues."

THAT'S WHAT WORRIES Alan Brace, a Huntington resident. "I see it as a Pandora's box," he says.

Brace grows hay on the 117-acre farm where he was raised. He posts his land for hunting but allows snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, since they don't affect his crop and he likes to be neighborly. But the committee found a sleeping road on his land, and the possibility of a permanent right-of-way through his fields alarms him. Off-road vehicles aside, even small things left in his hayfield can be damaging. A tossed stick can clog his baler. "And people leave behind wrappers, cans, bottles," he says. "Does any horse person want glass or wire or aluminum in their hay bale? The majority of people are great, but 10 percent aren't, and if you give them a benefit, they turn it into a right."

Brace also questions the accuracy of the old surveys and their current interpretations, both of which could contain errors. "You'll have people, including me, wanting a separate surveyor to look at these roads," he notes, "because 50 or 100 feet could make a difference as to whose land it's on." Such surveys, not to mention lawsuits, could cost towns and landowners small fortunes all over Vermont.

Brace is troubled by the issue's divisiveness and the feelings it arouses in him: "I'm a very mellow guy; I don't like controversy and arguments. But this raises my blood. I know some landowners who are going to go crazy."

THE MORNING AFTER the committee meeting, Mincar and Worthley take me on a brief field trip. A survey from 1850 notes that a road started "at the brook at the old wall south of Herman Gillets dwelling house" and proceeded southeast. The committee used old deed books to pinpoint Gillet's whereabouts in 1850, and Worthley plotted the road's shape from the survey measurements. (If a house has vanished, they look for signs of it, such as a cellar hole.) Sure enough, just south of the old Gillet place, an ancient stone wall still borders a brook.

The road, however, is now well disguised as woods. As we hike through the underbrush, Worthley points out that although the brook runs in a steep ravine, the terrain along one side of it is fairly flat, as if graded, mostly staying between two tumbledown stone walls: road signs.

At several spots, he points to large, flat stones that once let wagons cross the brook: old culverts, now silted in and masked by leaves and brush. Farther on, a row of hoary trees runs straight as a plumb line along the brook—-obvious, once Worthley points it out. The survey describes the road as two rods wide, 33 feet. Mincar paces off the distance between the row of trees and the stone wall. "Thirty feet," he says.

Clearly, a road once ran here, long obscured until now. The question is whether Huntington and other Vermont towns should let these sleeping roads lie or claim some of them for the future. Landowners, hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, and conservationists are anxious about the answer. Once roused, some sleeping roads will become public windfalls; others, battlegrounds. Either way, Vermont's forgotten past will soon touch its future.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.