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Editorial: In Plainfield, Happier Trails Require Cooperation

In recent years, the network of trails lacing the hillside behind the Plainfield School has seemed like the best kind of community partnership. Public and private landowners opened their property to a group of community volunteers who carved trails that became a popular destination for mountain bikers, cross country skiers, schoolchildren and solitary amblers.

But in recent months, ominous warnings appeared on one of the trails. “Private Trail,” read signs affixed to trees. “Firing Range Ahead.” While to our knowledge no actual bullets have flown, the postings signaled the outbreak of an increasingly angry fusillade of words.

It’s time for a cease-fire — and a realization by both sides that staking out extreme positions threatens not only this public-private partnership but also others.

The trouble began about six months ago, when landowner Jennifer Lesser withdrew permission for the town and the Plainfield Trailblazers group to promote and maintain the fancifully named Secret Trail through a portion of her 104-acre property. Lesser told staff writer Zack Peterson that her change of heart came from an unrelated conflict she had with a neighbor and a wish to enjoy more peace and quiet with her family.

When Lesser bought the property in 2010, its title included a conservation easement that guarantees permanent public access to all but the couple of acres immediately surrounding her home. However, after she expressed concern about an existing trail that skirted the site of a home she planned to build, Trailblazers leader Bill Knight and others worked with her to reroute the path uphill and away from her yard.

Having made that effort, trail advocates were understandably perplexed when Lesser withdrew her permission late last year. At that point, ideally, the parties would have gotten together and forged a solution that addressed Lesser’s concerns while preserving the access guaranteed by the easement. Instead, angry emails began flying back and forth, and Lesser had the intimidating signs put up. On one, someone scrawled a bitter riposte: “sociopath.”

The hostilities came to a head recently at a meeting of the Plainfield Selectboard, when Knight — who was appointed by the town’s Conservation Commission to monitor compliance with the easement — said Lesser was in violation of the easement and discussed sending her a formal notice and placing signs informing the public of its right to use the land “without interference by the landowner.”

Happily, cooler heads prevailed and the War of the Signs has not escalated. Last week, the director of the New Hampshire Conservation Land Stewardship program sounded a reasonable note in a letter to the town. Rather than trying to force Lesser to allow continued maintenance of the Secret Trail, Tracey Boisvert wrote, the town should simply open the path provided for in the easement — the one that runs from the road by Lesser’s home to the existing Walker Farm Trail.

We feel obliged to disclose that a member of the Valley News editorial board regularly walks this network of paths, including the Secret Trail. Our sense is that the rerouting undertaken two years ago struck a reasonable balance. At the same time, we are in no position to judge the impact Lesser and her family have felt from regular use of the trail.

There is no dispute that the easement requires Lesser to allow people to gently cross her land, including by way of the Secret Trail. However, it does not require her to permit the brush clearing, limb removal and other maintenance that guarantees visitors an unobstructed path for their feet, mountain bikes or skis.

It is regrettable that what began as a community partnership has ended in hostility. And we share the concern expressed by Conservation Commission member Myra Ferguson, who worried that the conflict might dissuade other landowners who are considering granting similar conservation easements (which generally give a landowner a direct or indirect financial benefit in exchange for public access). “We don’t want to poison the pool,” she said.

Thanks to the conservation easement, Lesser, the town and trail users are going to be forced to deal with one another now and into the future. We urge all parties to set aside their indignation, lay down their signs and look for common ground. It’s right there, beneath their feet.