Maps Don't Show 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.
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