GeoCarta Has Moved

Feb 3, 2006

"Phantom Roads" Provide Pitfalls For Landowners; Potential Work For Cartographers

Researchers in Vermont investigating town histories are looking for long-forgotten rights- of-way that could be used as recreational trails. The Burlington Free Press explains that many of these long-forgotten public rights-of-way are now causing conflict between recreationists and property owners.

Frank Thornton explained the origin of the roads, "Roads were laid out every half-mile, north, south, east and west. Half were designated before 1812." By the early part of the last century, many of the roads were no longer in use, mainly because, while a horse and wagon may have been able to negotiate them, an automobile could not. However, in many cases, local officials never took the necessary legal steps to extinguish the public's rights to the road. It is estimated that hundreds of these, "phantom roads" crisscross the state.

Pitfalls For Landowners
Typical of the problems these unknown roads can cause is the case of a Chittenden family that wanted to add on to their home. Local officials denied them a permit after research discovered that back in the 1800s "Green Road" ran under their house. Attorney Paul Gillies told the Free Press, that situations like that will only increase, predicting hundreds more legal, but forgotten rights-of-way will come to light, causing potential title problems for landowners.

Protecting The People's Rights
Many of the phantom roads have been discovered by recreation groups eager to use the public rights-of-way as recreation trails. These groups have urged caution in giving up public rights to the roads.
Steve McLeod of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, said, "If mistakes are made, this could be the biggest loss of public access in the state's history."

A Proposed Solution
State lawmakers have been trying to sort out the conflicting interests of public and private rights. A bill has come forward that would give towns until July 1, 2013, to research their records and locate all the references to rights-of-way. Then each town would establish a public process to determine which phantom roads should be abandoned. The towns would then give the state maps showing all roads and "identified corridors" they want to keep on their books. The public's rights to any other old roads would be extinguished. The bill is currently in committee.

Potential Profit For Cartographers?
Where the people of Vermont see problems, I see work for surveyors, mapmakers and GIS professionals. If the legislature fails to pass a bill to settle the issue, title insurers might be open to funding such a mapping project as a way of avoiding future title claims. If the proposed bill does become law, every town in Vermont will need to investigate and map their public rights-of-way by the deadline. Local governments in the state are relatively small, it's unlikely many of them have the capability to take on such a mapping project in-house. As attorney Gillies said, "Every town needs to conduct a study and find the roads. It's a big job."