Maps Don't Show Vermont's Sleeping Roads
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.