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Historic Roads Becoming Modern Roadblock in Vermont - 2003-12-27

The American poet Robert Frost rhapsodized about the lure and mystery of roads not taken. But in a growing number of small New England towns, roads that haven't been taken for centuries are stirring up trouble. Town officials want to preserve their historic right-of-ways for outdoor recreation. But some of these long-forgotten byways go right through people's living rooms.

Kathy Peterson had never heard of the old Green Road until this summer. That's when town officials in Chittenden, Vermont refused to grant her a permit to build a new addition on her house, saying the proposed structure would block a historic right of way. "This road supposedly starts at this rock wall, according to the town, and is 66 feet wide," she explains. "And it would go right through our house, through our swimming pool and all the way down the back."

Ms. Peterson points out that when the house was built seven years ago, nothing unusual turned up in the permitting process then. "Now all of a sudden," she says, "they're trying to say, 'This is town property and the right of way, and by the way you can't do what you want any more.'"

After months of research in state and local archives, the Petersons say they couldn't find a single map that showed the Green Road, though the right of way was included in a town report from 1796. But Kathy Peterson says many of the landmarks used in that survey, such as old tree stumps and frontporches, are long gone.

George Butts pushes aside small trees and branches as he walks along overgrown remnants of the Green Road on a steep hillside in town. The 73-year-old surveyor says it just takes the right clues and backwoods know-how to find these old roads. "I would venture to guess that's the road right there," he says. "They're not maintained, so you get sort of a gully, and if you were to measure this out and fit it to the records it would fit." But playing back-roads detective takes time. The town of Chittenden has hired someone to determine the routes of nearly two dozen abandoned roads and rights of way, but the researcher has been given no deadline. Town officials say the project will likely take years. That worries local resident Jean Chamberlain, who spoke out at a recent town meeting. She said, "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 whoops! it's right through their living room! What happens?" One official replied: "One of the problems are insufficient title searches."

Disputes over roads are growing in Vermont as the population expands and interest in outdoor activities increases. Reggi Dubin, a town administrator in Chittenden, notes that easy access to hiking, skiing, snow-mobiling and hunting areas is one of her town's biggest assets. "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," he said.

But that leaves residents like Kathy Peterson in limbo. And all across the state, title insurance companies admit they may refuse or limit coverage in towns where old rights-of-way are in dispute. That may make it impossible for people to buy or sell land in those communities. Lawyers advise buyers to do their homework. Over 2,700 kilometers of overgrown roads and trails stretch across Vermont, and charting them will take years.