In Plainfield, Unease Over Easement: Landowner, Town and Hikers Clash Over Trail Access
Bill Knight, Plainfield’s trail coordinator, left, watches as Steve Walker, a New Hampshire stewardship specialist, points out a possible trail route to run through Jennifer Lesser’s land that would lead to the French’s Ledges trail system. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Jennifer Lesser placed signs on the Secret Trail that say “Private Trail” and “Firing Range Ahead” to dissuade hikers from proceeding. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Walker traces the Walker Farm trail, showing the private land that it crosses on a map in Plainfield. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
From left, Bill Knight, Steve Walker and Steve Halleran look over a trail map in Plainfield. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Plainfield — A homeowner who bought a wooded parcel of land in 2010 is now objecting to the presence of a popular hiking trail on her property, despite a conservation easement that guarantees public access to most of her 104 acres.
Property owner Jennifer Lesser says the Secret Trail, part of a network of trails behind Plainfield Elementary School that leads to French’s Ledges, has proven to be a nuisance that infringes on her family’s privacy.
But a group of hikers contend that, in addition to the easement that has provided permanent public access to the land since long before Lesser bought it, they had a verbal agreement with her to allow use of the trail — an agreement she now wants to discard.
Lesser said she asked town officials and the hiking group late last year to stop maintaining the Secret Trail, saying the verbal understanding to allow the trail through her property was never made an official, written part of the easement deed on file at Town Hall.
“They have every right to build the trail that’s on the conservation deed,” Lesser said, “but that’s the only trail that should be maintained. All other trails are not permitted by the conservation deed. They are not permitted by me as a property owner.”
However, according to that document, the town “has the right to construct, manage, use, and maintain a trail as a public footpath.”
The hikers and government officials say the easement would authorize them to cut a new trail from an existing parking lot through Lesser’s land. Instead, they say, they hope to negotiate a friendly agreement that would allow the Secret Trail to continue serving as that public path.
One afternoon recently, a trio of men — Bill Knight, who coordinates with the Plainfield Trailblazers, a group of hikers who help build and maintain the trails; Stephen Walker, stewardship specialist with the state Office of Energy and Planning; and Plainfield Town Administrator Stephen Halleran — gathered at a parking area off Sanborn Road to survey the property’s compliance with the easement deed.
Near an entrance to the Secret Trail, the group found a large hemlock whose trunk had been cut and was leaning against brush and foliage, obscuring the path for hikers. Lodged halfway into the sliced-open trunk was the blade of a chain saw.
“That’s about 80 feet tall,” Knight said. “A hanging tree like this is one of the most unsafe things.”
In an interview, Lesser said that the town and hiking group officials did not comply with her request to stop maintaining the trail and she remains unhappy that people continue to walk the path. In March, she placed signs saying “Private Trail” and “Firing Range Ahead” on trees along the trail.
Knight was assigned by the town’s Conservation Commission to monitor compliance with the conservation easement. A few weeks ago, he said, he started receiving complaints from hikers about the hemlock and other branches and logs blocking the way.
Lesser acknowledged having “selective trimming” done, but offered no details. “It’s my property,” she said. “As long as I’m in compliance of the agreement, I could cut trees.”
Halleran and Knight have taken the lead in negotiations with Lesser, but so far, they haven’t reached a resolution. Knight, Halleran and Walker are still struggling to understand her complaint: For roughly two years now, the Secret Trail has been maintained as a publicly available path with her consent.
Throughout the French’s Ledges area, “a combination of private and public owners have granted the town an easement that allows for trails to be built on their land,” Halleran said, including Kimball Union Academy, a private boarding school, and the Plainfield School District. “What (Lesser and her family) unfortunately did was, they allowed a trail that we all got to like and use.
“And now they’ve said, ‘Don’t use it anymore.’ ”
Before heading out to the trail, Walker pulled out a red binder and flipped through the pages.
“This is the conservation easement,” he said, “and a couple things are real clear.” He began to read, tracing the words with his finger: “ ‘There is hereby conveyed pedestrian access to, on and across the property for hunting, fishing and transitory passive recreational purposes.’ ”
Walker closed the binder and placed it on the hood of his car. “So, basically,” he continued, “pedestrians can walk anywhere on this property.”
That broad access was established as part of an easement granted by a previous landowner in 1989, and its conditions were part of the deed when Lesser, a veterinarian who runs the Norwich Regional Animal Hospital, paid $275,000 for the 104-acre parcel in July 2010.
The land’s previous owner received a cash payment from the state in exchange for agreeing to keep the land largely undeveloped and open to the public, Halleran said, which reduced the property’s market value and likely allowed Lesser to purchase it for a lower price than a parcel without such restrictions.
A few minutes later, Knight and Halleran joined Walker at the trailhead off Sanborn Road, just above Lesser’s home. When Lesser bought her land, built a house and moved in with her children and George Sandmann, Knight said, the town and hikers wanted to be mindful of the family’s privacy but still maintain public access.
So, Knight said, he and several others in the hiking group worked closely with Lesser to discourage use of an existing trail that ran right by the family’s new home, and to replace it with a new route, the Secret Trail, that veered farther uphill. “We had several meetings, walked her through it and flagged areas that she didn’t feel comfortable with,” Knight said.
In exchange for Lesser’s permission to create the Secret Trail, Halleran said, Knight, the town and the hiking group agreed not to develop a trailhead that would have encouraged hikers to park in the small lot near Lesser’s home and access the trail network from there.
“If we could have the Secret Trail,” Halleran said, “then we felt that we didn’t need to build on that portion of the land. That was our bargaining chip.”
It was all “a handshake agreement done on good faith,” Halleran continued. “There were no written deals.”
From Lesser’s perspective, the trail advocates are abusing her generosity and ignoring her family’s rights. “I own the land, even if much of it is conservation land,” said Lesser. “We are in complete 100 percent compliance of the law, and we just want some rest and quiet.”
When Knight and fellow hikers approached her while she was building her home, Lesser realized that “they were either going to have to obliterate the (existing) trail completely or move it away from the house.”
“As a measure of kindness,” she said, she allowed them to build the Secret Trail loop, but “it was not a dedicated trail in the conservation agreement.” Instead, she said, she saw it as “more of a trial.”
“ ‘You can move it, but it might not stay,’ ” Lesser recalled saying. “And that’s a very big ‘but.’ ”
Nearly two years after the initial agreement, she and her family decided they no longer wanted people using the trail. A key factor in their decision, she said, was a conflict they had with a member of the family that previously owned the land.
In November, Kinsley H. Walker was charged with two misdemeanor counts of trespass and criminal mischief after he allegedly cut Christmas trees from the property even though Lesser had told him not to. According to police records, Walker said he had an agreement with Lesser and Sandmann that allowed him to “cultivate” trees he said he planted 15-20 years ago when his family owned the land.
Plainfield Police Chief Paul Roberts said that no one has ever been able to produce any documentation of that agreement, and as a result, Walker was charged. He has pleaded guilty to timber harvesting trespass, criminal trespass and paid Lesser $1,200 in restitution, said Roberts.
Lesser said she was stung by the scrutiny she received during the Walker case, and she bristles at the response to the trail dispute. People scribbled expletives and words like “sociopath” on the signs she placed on the trail, she said, and scratched the plastic — acts she calls “damage and destruction” to her property.
“I have, under multiple occasions, asked them to stop maintaining the unauthorized trail,” Lesser said, adding that she feels most of her emails have gone unheeded or ignored.
Halleran and Knight say otherwise. They reached out to Lesser and invited her to the recent survey of the property trails, they said, but she was unable to make it due to her work schedule. In an April 30 email that Halleran provided, he asked Lesser if she “would be interested in sitting down and discussing the various issues at hand.”
In an email reply, Lesser wrote: “I am looking forward to establishment of the trail that correlates with the conservation document.” She did not say where that trail would be located. She did say, however, that cameras have been placed on her property. “This visualization of activity may impact future actions of those who choose to deface signs on my property, signs that are cautionary for public awareness.”
In an interview, Lesser said the Christmas tree cutting case and the trail controversy have her fed up with “the barrage of public opinion and the microscope of the press.”
She strongly advises people not to buy conservation land.
“I’m trying to uphold the agreement and people want more,” she said. “They’ve always pushed for more.”
Get It in Writing
Halleran said it is unfortunate that the dispute has reached the point of considering whether to enforce the terms of the conservation easement by abandoning the Secret Trail and building a new one. “Maybe it was all a misunderstanding,” he said, “but the trails group would not have put the entire Secret Trail in if they felt it wasn’t permanent.”
On Wednesday evening, Knight updated the Selectboard on what he said are violations of the easement, including downed trees and signs discouraging public use. Knight noted that the document prohibits “signs … detrimental to the purposes of this easement.” It also bars measures that “impair the scenic quality of the property as viewed from public roads or public trails.”
“It’s pretty tough and very detailed,” Knight said of the easement.
One response, he said, might be to place markers informing hikers of their right “to access these lands without interference by the landowner.”
Knight said the easement also provides for formally notifying the landowner of violations and using mediation to resolve the dispute. In the end, members of the Selectboard and the town’s Conservation Commission agreed to consider the issue and hope for a friendly resolution before sending Lesser any formal notice.
“Let a couple weeks go by,” Halleran said. “There’s a lot of emotion right now.”
Conservation Commission member Myra Ferguson worried about the effect this dispute might have on other landowners who may be considering guaranteeing public access through conservation easements.
“We don’t want to poison the pool,” Ferguson said. “Whoever wants to conserve their property doesn’t need to look at this and say, ‘Oh my god, I’m never going to do that.’ ”
Halleran and several others agreed.
“We don’t want to be seen as just being antagonistic to private landowners,” Halleran began. “However, if there are violations that the Selectboard feels they need to address, then we should address them. Otherwise people will say, ‘Do these things matter?’ And they do.
“I think the lesson here is,” he continued, “you have to have a written agreement. You need something that everybody can look back on. Because these trails have done so much for the health of Plainfield, and I think it would be in everyone’s interests to solve this.”
Contacted after the meeting, Lesser declined further comment.
Zack Peterson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3211.