Decision in Halifax Case Important Precedent, Conservation Win

September 7, 2007

A recent ruling by a state court that two backcountry trails in the Town of Halifax could not be reclassified to public roads will have important implications for the rural southern Vermont community and other towns working to control sprawl. The decision will help make rural lands along trails, which include significant wildlife habitat, working forests and recreational opportunities, less vulnerable to development.

VNRC intervened in the case and worked closely with a group of Halifax residents to halt the Select Board’s attempt to reclassify the trails, a move which would have violated the goals of the town plan and put popular skiing, horseback riding, hunting, hiking, and snowmobiling trails at risk from development.

“These public trails are treasures,” said Halifax resident Paul Taylor. “They offer recreational opportunity, solitude, and are key to Halifax’s rural character. Reclassifying them as roads would have robbed our town of unique assets, not to mention clearly violating our town plan.”

The ruling in Halifax sets an important legal precedent. In the decision, Judge John P. Wesley of Windham County Superior Court agreed with VNRC that state law bars trails from serving as road frontage for development in Vermont. State law requires frontage along a public road to develop a home.

The Select Board in Halifax had tried to get around this requirement by reclassifying several trails in direct conflict with town plan language and several town votes, which urged the protection of recreational trails in the town. VNRC helped a group of town residents appeal the Select Board’s reclassification, and on August 31st, Judge Wesley ruled that the public good required the preservation of the trails.

Jamey Fidel, forest program director and legal counsel for VNRC, credited the residents of Halifax for their steadfast commitment to conserving valuable rural areas in the town.

“This is an important case in the sense that there is a legal standard that towns must follow when upgrading trails to roads to allow for more development,” Fidel said. “The reclassification must be in the ‘public good, convenience, and necessity of the inhabitants in the town.’ This means looking at the environmental impacts of reclassifying roads, and whether it is in the town’s best interest,” said Fidel.

“We expect this ruling will become even more important as towns consider what to do when they discover ancient roads,” Fidel added.

The ruling also sends a message to towns that they must consider the sentiment of the public, and the provisions of the town plan and local zoning when reclassifying roads in ways that could result in more subdivision and development. The ruling underscores the importance of local planning because the case hinged in large part on what townspeople expressed through the planning process.

“Sometimes it seems that things are stacked against the average landowner who simply wants a town plan to be respected. In this case, the town plan clearly urged that these trails and the land around them be considered for their natural resource values. Thanks to VNRC, the court, and the commissioners who helped the judge, the integrity of our town plan and these trails will remain intact,” said Halifax resident Maggie Bartenhagen.