Creating public trails on private property
By JAMES TASSE | August 13,2006
Have you ever strolled along Otter Creek on the Pittsford Trails?
Taken a run along the Mad River Path in Waitsfield? Rode your mountain bike on Burke's Kingdom Trails? Picked berries along the Patch Pond Loop in Rutland City?
There is an abundance of trails throughout Vermont to enjoy.
Ever wonder whose land these great recreational trails were on? Did you assume they were on public land, owned by a town or the state?
You might be surprised to learn that many of these trails are largely situated on private property whose owners have been kind enough to open their land to public recreation.
Around the state, groups of trail enthusiasts have entered into agreements with landowners to open their lands for public access in exchange for maintenance. It is a surprisingly-simple process that may work in your community too.
What makes such efforts possible is that Vermont state law offers very strong protection to landowners who permit public access for recreation without charge.
The so-called Landowner Liability Act of 1998 essentially says that landowners who grant permission for free public access have no more obligation to protect recreational users than they do to protect trespassers.
The upside of this law is that landowners can feel relatively safe opening their lands to public access. The downside is that users have to use these lands with respect and caution, because no one is guaranteeing perfect safety.
Of course, the groups that gain permission have a vested interest in maintaining the trails in a safe condition so that the group's relationships with the landowner remain on good terms.
And a good relationship is the key to these trails' success, says Pittsford's Randy Adams.
"The trails need to be maintained and users need to use common sense and be respectful of the land, not only so that access continues, but also so more opportunities to create new trails may become available," Adams said.
In our small state, if one landowner has a bad experience, news of it can make other property holders shy of entering into agreements with trail groups.
The relationship between the landowner and user groups is often spelled out in a very flexible legal tool called a "license agreement."
This agreement has no impact on property values, does not transfer with property sales and can be revoked by either party with agreed-upon notice, usually a week to 60 days.
The agreement prevents any claim of historical use of the land that might ripen into a contest over possession, because it clearly establishes the ownership of the land by the signing property holder. Several trail projects were initiated by landowners in order to help minimize their liability exposure by clarifying the status of their property and by creating a method to maintain and police it.
For the trail group, the agreement details exactly what its responsibilities are in order to maintain access.
The exact details of the agreements between user groups and landowners vary from case to case. The main point, however, is that it is not too difficult to create partnerships between willing private landowners and public recreational users.
Such partnerships have created impressive trail networks on private land.
This is not news for snowmobilers, who have long been organized for access through the efforts of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, which manages around 4,000 miles of trails — much of them on private land — for winter use only.
There is currently no statewide group that has been as successful as VAST at creating trails for users during the non-winter months. The Kingdom Trails in Burke have made a good start. however, with more than 100 miles of mountain-biking trails on private land under management.
There are several resources available for more information on how to create trails for recreation and health. A good place to start is at your regional planning commission or town recreation department.
The Vermont Trails and Greenways Council (241-3683) is another good source. Its Web site, at www.vttgc.org, includes a downloadable manual that covers all the steps you'll need to take to start a trail project in your town.
It's a great way to improve any community.
James Tasse is the executive director of the Rutland Area Physical Activity Coalition. Tasse and Becka Roolf write columns on alternating weeks.