Tunbridge couple files second legal challenge to town’s authority over trail use

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2023 6:43:11 PM
Modified: 2/2/2023 1:30:53 PM

TUNBRIDGE — In a legal dispute turning into a legal saga, a second complaint has been filed against the Town of Tunbridge. Pitting landowners against a municipality, the filing follows the dismissal of a first lawsuit brought by the same plaintiffs contesting the Selectboard’s authority over trails in town that run through private property.

The plaintiffs, John Echeverria and Carin Pratt, own the 325-acre Dodge Farm property. The married couple’s first lawsuit, as well as the second complaint requesting declaratory judgment, argued that the Tunbridge Selectboard doesn’t have the authority to maintain or designate appropriate use of legal trails in town.

The initial lawsuit was dismissed in Vermont Superior Court in December by Judge Elizabeth Mann for lack of “ripeness.”

“Mere fears that the town may one day seek to maintain the trails on the Dodge Farm property are not sufficient,” Mann wrote in her decision.

The follow-up complaint, filed on Jan. 13, is intended to get around Mann’s declaration by pointing toward a procedure used by the Tunbridge Selectboard for granting trail maintenance permits, Echeverria, the plaintiff, said.

“We were surprised the town fought this case on the issue of ripeness,” he said. “We thought they were as anxious to get this legal issue resolved as we were.”

The “Miscellaneous Improvements Application” from the town, attached to the filing as an appendix, “can be used to gain approval from the Selectboard for Class 4 Roads, Legal Trail improvements or changes,” the document says.

The procedure, enacted in August, “establishes a process for private individuals to apply for and receive permission from the Selectboard to exercise the Town’s purported legal authority to maintain and repair legal trails,” the filing reads.

“Ever since we’ve owned the property, we’ve done the maintenance, and no one with the town has come up to us and said ‘Hey what are you doing?’ ” Echeverria said. “We just wanted to highlight the fact that the town’s assertive maintenance authority is a new invention.”

But the existence of the form alone isn’t enough to prove ripeness, said Montpelier-based attorney Michael Tarrant, who is representing Tunbridge.

“Even if the court were to consider the form, there’s no allegation that anyone has sought approval from the form,” Tarrant said.

The section of the follow-up complaint outlining the dispute concludes with a foreboding statement, also not in the initial lawsuit.

“In addition, the entry onto the Orchard trail on the Dodge Farm by volunteers purporting to exercise the Town’s alleged maintenance and repair authority will constitute a trespass and uncompensated taking of private property in violation of the Vermont Constitution and U.S. Constitution,” the filing reads.

However, the plaintiffs aren’t requesting judgment on this point.

“This is a claim that we would raise if the town came onto the trail with bulldozers and started doing work,” Echeverria said. “It’s not a ripe claim because they haven’t come onto the property. But if they were to come onto the property and do maintenance, that would be an invasion of our private property rights.”

Norwich-based attorney Geoffrey Vitt is representing the couple, as he did in the first lawsuit.

“Our position is very straight forward,” Echeverria said. “In Vermont, towns only have authority granted to them by the state legislature, and the state legislature has clearly not granted towns the ability to maintain trails.”

“And it’s as simple as that.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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