Town rolls out study of ancient roads (11/5/09)

Bygone byways can prompt property disputes

Nov. 5, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

A recent study of Williston’s defunct byways found few surprises but did discover that one road thought to be private is actually owned by the town.

The entire length of Beartown Road, which runs from South Road to the Richmond town line, is a public road, the study concluded.

Under state law, all municipalities were required to place so-called ancient roads on the official map or forgo future claims to them.

The statute is designed to avoid disputes when public roads are discovered on private property, sometimes decades or centuries after they became little more than overgrown trails.

“Some roads, for example, were established to serve farms or other residences that, for a number of reasons, have faded back into the landscape,” wrote Jessica Andreoletti, a planner with the town of Williston, in a memo. “What was left behind is a network of roads that existed somewhere on paper and somewhat on the ground, but not clearly in either place.”

The ancient roads research was conducted by Ronald Gauthier of the Williston engineering firm DuBois & King. The town funded the study with a $5,000 state grant.

The study outlined the status of eight ancient roads scattered around rural areas of Williston.

On Beartown Road, the study looked at land records dating back to 1882. It concluded that the entire length of the road — not just the quarter-mile piece nearest to South Road, as was originally thought — is owned by the town of Williston.

Four others are classified as impassible or untraveled public roads. They are located at the end of Lincoln Road, between Redmond Road and Faye Lane, the eastern extension of Butternut Road and the end of Christmas Tree Lane.

The study determined that stretches running from Chapman Lane to Governor Chittenden Road and from Old Stage Road to Faye Lane were privately owned.

The final stretch involved a portion of Bradley Lane. The study concluded it was a town-owned road but recommended the part within the Interstate 89 right-of-way be discontinued.

Ancient roads have for years created problems for real estate agents and property owners. Title research done when property is purchased sometimes does not go back far enough to discover the roads.

Perhaps the most famous dispute over ancient roads occurred in the central Vermont town of Chittenden in 2004.

Town officials there ruled that a homeowner could not build an addition because it would block access to a road laid out in 1793, according to a story in the New York Times. Town officials showed up with chainsaws to cut down trees and bushes on the road, but police intervened.

The real estate industry and outdoor enthusiasts lobbied for a law that would avoid such disputes. Act 178 requires towns by July 1, 2010 to either claim public roads by including them on an official map or permanently discontinue them.

After the deadline, a municipality can still claim public roads but might have to compensate property owners. By 2015, all town highways and trails that are not included on a town map will be permanently discontinued.

A public hearing on the Beartown Road classification will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date in the near future, Andreoletti said. Officials also hope to hear from people who know of ancient roads that the town has yet to discover.

The Williston Conservation Commission has indicated an interest in using ancient roads as public recreation trails. Andreoletti acknowledged that the ancient roads study will help keep the town’s options open but said nearby landowners need not worry about dramatic changes.

“It doesn’t mean we are going to build a giant recreation park and have the public crawling all over the place,” she said.