Hiking trail plan challenged

DORSET — A landowner involved in an ongoing boundary dispute with the town is appealing recent Dorset Select Board decisions regarding the Owls Head Town Forest Public Trail.

William Burns, of Stonewall Lane, has appealed the board's Aug. 2 decision to create a new section of trail to facilitate access to the town-owned Owls Head property. The hiking trail is off Route 30 and Black Rock Lane. The appeal, filed in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division, disputes the town's claims concerning prope rty boundary lines.

The appeal was filed on behalf of Burns by attorney Sigismund Wysolmerski of Rutland. It contends that "the property purportedly acquired by the town for purposes of this trail is owned by the Burns family and the town has taken private property for purposes of recreation in violation of the Vermont statutes."

The appeal notice contends that "Vermont law prohibits condemnation of land for recreational purposes" and that the board is "well aware no such documentation exists in the land records or elsewhere specifically delineating the acreage involved, and although they acknowledge that they have 'no idea who actually owns the property' have proceeded with this illegal and unwarranted taking."

Reached Friday by phone, Wysolmerski said, "The bottom line is that our position is they are trying to build a trail on land that is owned by Mr. Burns."

He added that some of the older property deeds involved in any survey of the area are difficult to interpret. "It's pretty complex," he said. "And to be fair there is an argument on both sides."

Wysolmerski said a status conference has been scheduled in the appeal on Nov. 13.

In a list of findings following a public hearing on the proposal, the Select Board stated that land surveys done in connection with the town's acquisition of approximately 255 acres in 2016 for the town forest concluded that a disputed section of the trail does not cross Burns' property.

In addition, according to the board's 21-point findings, "Notwithstanding that the Dorset Trail did not cross the Burns property, the town manager and the Select Board determined it would be in the best interests of the town to reroute the Dorset Trail for the 1,200 feet that it does not cross Dorset property to a location further from the Burns property to make access and hiking to the Owls Head parcel safer."

The trail from Black Rock Lane and Ken's Camp Road off Route 30 to the Gettysburg Quarry (.45 miles) was preserved as a right-of-way during the purchase of the quarry parcel in 2016.

That transaction involved receipt of $450,000 in funding from the U.S. Forest Service and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, along with $205,000 from private fundraising and easement assistance from the Vermont Land Trust.

From the quarry parcel, which was so named because it supplied headstones for soldiers killed in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, the trail extends another 1.6 miles to Owls Head and Gilbert Lookout.

The board's findings also state that in 2014 Burns posted no-trespassing notices and "blazed a line on and across the Dorset Trail," after the town disclosed its intent to acquire the Gettysburg Quarry property and was in negotiations with the Vermont Conservation and Housing Board.

A grant from the VCHB also required a conservation easement precluding the use of motorized vehicles on the Gettysburg Quarry parcel, the board stated.

A land survey determined that the signs and blaze lines established by Burns in 2014 "were encroachments on the Gettysburg Quarry parcel and were not located on the property owned by Burns," the board stated in its Aug. 2 findings.

A second land survey, commissioned after acquisition of the Gettysburg Quarry property to establish the relationship of the quarry site, the Owls Head Forest lands and the Burns property also found that the Dorset Trail "did not cross the Burns property," the findings state.

The Burns appeal contends, however, that the town "has no authority to take by eminent domain any property for purposes of recreation," and demands that the court "declare title free and clear to Burns, and that the findings of necessity to the town be stricken."

In addition, Burns seeks compensation "for the taking of his land, for damage to his property and for all costs and fees associated with the defense of this claim."

And Burns asks the court to "assess a sum as against the town of Dorset and or its agents for each and every day that the ongoing trespass to the plaintiff's property occurs."

The town is represented in the matter by attorney Joseph O'Dea, who could not be reached for comment.

A source familiar with the hiking trail who asked not to be identified said the trail continues to be used, including along the disputed section where a blaze line was marked.

Among other points stated in the board's findings are that the new trail section proposed by the town is more convenient than the existing trail and would afford better access for emergency personnel if needed; and that the board found it necessary to establish the new trail "to quiet issues with regard to access and to assure that the public has free and open access to the town's lands ."

During a public hearing in July, the board stated, no interested parties nor the general public "provided claims for compensation or proof of record title to the lands where the public trail is to be laid out."

In tracing the history of the trail and forest area, the board states in the findings that as early as 1920, the Dorset Science Club, led by Dr. George H. Gilbert, had blazed a trail to Owls Head, and that in 1928, the club published a hiking guide to what was referred to as the Dorset Trail.

In 1963, Dorset was granted a parcel referred to as Owls Head or Owls Head Forest by the club, which had acquired title in 1932, the board states in its findings. And in the 1970s, the Owls Head trail was listed in the Green Mountain Club's "Day Hikers Guide to Vermont."

The town Conservation Commission began working in 2012 to conserve the quarry parcel and ensure access to the forest, the board states, leading to the purchase and conservation agreements in 2016.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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