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N.H.: Plainfield Property Owner Has Upper Hand in Trail Dispute

Plainfield — State officials say that the town has limited legal authority in an ongoing dispute involving a property owner who purchased 104 acres of land with a conservation easement.

Tracey Boisvert, program director for the Conservation Land Stewardship, wrote that a resolution should be possible between property owner Jennifer Lesser and town officials and hikers by reinforcing that one of the existing trails is “the only trail on the property that the town has a legal right to establish and maintain” under the easement.

The state recommendations follow nearly six months of conflict over The Secret Trail, which was constructed more than two years ago as part of a verbal understanding between Lesser and a group of hikers and town officials.

Lesser late last year insisted that town officials stop maintaining the Secret Trail, saying that it infringed upon her family’s privacy.

Under the easement, the town only has legal rights to the Walker Farm Trail, a long-time public hiking path on Lesser’s property, but it also wanted the Secret Trail to be of continued use for hikers. Boisvert urged that the parties reach a mutually agreed-upon solution.

In a letter dated May 22, Boisvert advised that despite the controversy generated by Lesser’s desire to discontinue maintenance, Plainfield should “do what it can to support the landowner in her efforts.”

“Our advice,” she wrote, “is almost always to first address potential issues by working cooperatively with the landowner whenever possible.”

The easement grants “pedestrian access to, on and across the property for hunting, fishing and transitory passive recreational purposes,” Boisvert wrote, but it does not grant “anyone the right to deface or damage the landowner’s property or land in any way.”

Lesser yesterday didn’t return messages asking for comment. She had earlier forwarded the letter to the Valley News.

Once viewed as a compromise between the feuding parties, the Secret Trail rerouted a path that crossed a section of land where Lesser wanted to build her home.

As part of the agreement, Town Administrator Stephen Halleran and trail monitor Bill Knight vowed to not mark an old trail on her property that connects Walker Farm Trail with the trailhead parking lot off Sanborn Road.

The old trail ran close to Lesser’s home, and Halleran and Knight argued that creating the Secret Trail would send hiking traffic farther away from her residence — despite a provision in the easement that allows the town to maintain Walker Farm Trail as a public footpath and a trailhead area for parking.

But, starting last December, Lesser asked the town to stop maintaining the Secret Trail, saying that the path was never officially incorporated into the easement.

The request left Halleran, Knight and other hikers at a loss: The Secret Trail already had been in place for about two years, serving as a convenient loop for hikers trekking to French’s Ledges.

After a flurry of emails among Lesser, Halleran and Knight, the parties say they have not been able to come to a satisfactory resolution.

Lesser had said in previous phone interviews that her requests for discontinued maintenance went unheeded, and as a result, she put up “Practice Firing Range” and “Private Trail” signs in March to discourage hikers from using the Secret Trail.

Then, later, when fallen trees, branches and logs were found to be obstructing the path, Knight said he began receiving complaints from hikers.

Lesser acknowledged that “selective trimming” had been done on the property but provided no other details.

Boisvert said in a phone interview that the town requested the state to weigh in on the matter. So, earlier this month, Knight, Halleran, and Stephen Walker, stewardship specialist with the state Office of Energy and Planning, surveyed the property and discussed the feasibility of reconstructing the Walker Farm Trail as an alternate route.

Knight then presented the monitor’s report to the Plainfield Selectboard, contending that Lesser was in violation of the easement by putting up “detrimental” signs and impairing “the scenic quality of the property.”

After listening to Knight’s findings, the Selectboard said it would give the Conservation Commission — which oversees issues pertaining to the easement — until mid-June to meet and develop a course of action.

The easement provides for formally notifying the landowner of violations and using mediation to resolve any disputes, but Halleran advised that they “let a couple weeks go by” before sending any notice to Lesser.

Boisvert wrote that none of Knight’s findings in the monitor report “warrant the level of enforcement response proposed.”

Should any conflict arise between the monitor or the landowner, Boisvert wrote, “it is best to find an alternate monitor for that particular property.”

Halleran said that all the letter’s suggestions would be discussed among the Conservation Committee.

“They’ll take all that information into account then issue a recommendation to the selectmen,” he said, adding that he thinks the town “does not disagree with any of the statements that the state makes about the Walker Farm Trail or the parking lot trail.”

He also said he’s unsure if the town will start building the parking lot trail this summer.

“The state document’s just another thing in the file,” he added.

Messages left for Knight were not returned.

Zack Peterson can be reached at zpeterson@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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