Historic roads create confusion in Chittenden

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(Host) Historic roads in Chittenden are causing a headache for some local residents. The town’s select board is trying to determine the status of more than 20 Class Four roads that they want to protect. In the process, they’ve denied a building permit to one resident, whose home they say sits directly in the path of a 200-year old turnpike. The uncertainty of where the roads are and who in town may be affected has some in Chittenden worried.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, disputes over old roads are occurring more and more often across Vermont.

(Keck) Kathy Peterson had never heard of the Green Road until this summer. That’s when town officials refused to grant her a building permit for a new addition, saying it would block the historic right of way.

(Peterson) “This road supposedly starts at this rock wall, according to the town, and is 66 feet wide. And it would go right through our house, up to our garage, through our swimming pool and all the way down the back.”

(Keck) Frustrated that their building plans were put on hold, the Petersons began to do research.

(Peterson) “We wanted to find out how this could be. They issued a permit for our house to be built seven years ago and nothing ever came up through the deed search, through the title insurance search, or anything. And now all of a sudden this is town property, and the right of way, and by the way you can’t do what you want any more.”

(Keck) The family contacted the state transportation department, looked through old land records and studied historic maps from the 1700 and 1800s. But the Petersons say none of the maps showed the green road. There was substantial written documentation, however. A survey report from 1796 records the road’s location, but Kathy Peterson questions the accuracy of many of the landmarks used in the survey, such as old spruce and beach stumps and Mr. Zeeb Green’s dooryard.

(Peterson) “There’s no way anybody can lay this out now and try to find this – these markers are gone, so it’s anybody’s guess where this road goes.”

(George Butts) “Lay people think this is so, but I’ve done it. I would say with some assurance that I could locate the Green Road where their property is.”

(Keck) That’s George Butts, a Vermont surveyor who lives in Chittenden, not far from the Green Road. He says with the right clues, an experienced surveyor can accurately locate a 200-year-old road.

(Butts) “I don’t know if there’s a fence up there or not, we’re going to have to bush whack.”

(Keck) According to the records, the Green Road was the first road to run from Rutland and Pittsford over the Green mountains to Pittsfield. . It was an early mail and stage route and it was known to be treacherous. While portions of the route fell into disrepair in the early 1800s, parts of the road are still in use today. In Pittsfield, they call it the Tozier Road. In Pittsford, it’s Barnard Road. Surveyor George Butts heads up a steep embankment near where the Barnard Road ends in Chittenden to show how traces of the old green road can still be seen today.

(Butts) “I would venture to guess that’s the road right there. They’re not maintained, so you get sort of a gully, just look at these rocks here and look back. You’re looking right down that road there. And we could probably follow this right up through and right around and if you were to measure this out and fit it to the records it would fit.”

(Keck) But playing back road detective takes time. The Chittenden Town Select Board has hired someone to research the 20-plus roads in question, but no timetable for results has been given. Some town officials say the project will take years. That worries Jean Chamberlain, who spoke out at a recent select board meeting.

(Chamberlain) “I’m just curious about where we’re headed with this, because I’m a bit concerned about a property owner that may want to sell their property. What if they sell it and two years later you guys decide that there’s a trail going through there and it’s right through their living room. What happens? One of the problems are insufficient title searches.”

(Keck) Town officials say prospective real estate buyers need to do their homework and conduct more thorough title searches. The law presumes a title is good if it can be traced back 40 years. But as the Petersons found out, that wasn’t anywhere near far back enough. And asking a lawyer to research a title back 200 years can cost thousands of dollars. Andy Michael, a title attorney at Vermont Attorneys Title Corporation, says the uncertainty of the situation in Chittenden could become a problem for people who want to buy or sell land there.

(Michael) “Title insurance is essentially about risk elimination. Theoretically when we insure the title we’re supposed to know the complete status of it. And we’d like to tell them what roads, what easements and what covenants affect the property. And if these roads are going to show up years after they bought the property, we can’t properly assess the insurance risk and we’ll simply have to say that the property in some of these towns aren’t insurable.”

(Keck) Michael says a number of towns are dealing with similar situations and he says it’s a troubling and growing problem for Title Insurance companies. Local officials in Chittenden admit the road situation may cause some short-term discomfort. But they say it’s important for the town to document and protect its public land. Select board member Donaleen Farwell says it’s unfortunate that the Peterson’s can’t build their addition as planned. But she says she has to think of what’s best for everyone in town, including future generations.

(Farwell) “We have a duty to the townspeople to protect our right of ways and the Green Road is one of our town right of ways. And with the population growing and the interest of outdoor recreation also increasing it’s important to keep class four highways and trails as public resources. It’s one of the town’s biggest resources.”

(Keck) Farwell says Chittenden has no industry or business base to fall back on. Along with the elementary school, she says the town’s access to recreational facilities is it’s biggest selling point.
Reggi Dubin, one of the town listers agrees. Dubin is a member of the committee that’s been looking into the historic roads.

(Dubin) “Land is a finite quantity and public rights of way are very precious assets and once you give them away you can’t get them back.”

(Keck) A neighbor of the Petersons has offered to provide land that would allow a portion of the Green Road to be rerouted around the Peterson house. Chittenden officials haven’t commented on the proposal except to say they’d need a town wide vote to move any road. Chittenden Select Board Chairman Bob Bearor says these sorts of property disputes need to be settled once and for all.

Select Board Chairman Bob Bearer believes these sorts of arguments need to be settled once and for all.

(Bob Bearer) “This has been going on for- I’ve been a selectman for over 30 years and this has been going on ever since I’ve been on the board. There’s always been one here and one there, who owns it and who don’t. We’ve got so much land here, we’ve got a land in this town lot of old growth and we just thought it was time we found out where we stand and what we own and don’t own.”

(Keck) Disputes over roadways are increasing and Vermont officials say the problem will only get larger. Some 1,700 miles of Class Four highways and trails stretch across the state and each town has several miles of them.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Chittenden.

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