Lawmaker looks to for legislative solution to Tunbridge trails dispute

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-10-2023 6:17 PM

TUNBRIDGE — In the shadow of an ongoing legal dispute that has pitted a Tunbridge property owner against the town’s Selectboard, a Tunbridge state representative introduced a bill that would give towns the authority to maintain legal trails.

The plaintiffs in a series of two lawsuits, 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.

A Vermont Superior Court judge dismissed the first lawsuit, and the Town of Tunbridge has filed to dismiss the second.

But H.370, sponsored by Rep. John O’Brien, D-Tunbridge, Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, and Rep. Rodney Graham, R- Williamstown, would clarify through legislation a matter that for now has been left up to the courts to decide.

“The legislation came out of some of the briefs that were written, pointing to some ambiguity about who has the right to maintain or improve legal trails,” O’Brien, who is also a member of the Tunbridge Selectboard, said in an interview with the Valley News on Monday. “I asked our legislative council just to write up a bill that would make it clear that the Selectboard has the power to do those things.”

In statute at the moment, there’s no duty on the Selectboard to maintain or improve legal trails, O’Brien said. The legislation, if passed, would explicitly give towns a choice.

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“Trails shall not be considered highways and the town may choose to be, but shall not be required to be, responsible for any maintenance, including culverts and bridges,” the bill reads. The town would also have authority to regulate the use of trails, including what types of vehicles are permitted. While a town can maintain trails, it “should not be required to maintain trails nor owe a duty of care to persons using a trail that the Selectboard chooses to maintain.”

In an interview with the Valley News in January, Echeverria emphasized that towns only have the authority granted them by the state Legislature, and “the state Legislature has clearly not granted towns the ability to maintain trails,” he said.

Introduced at the end of February, H.370 is currently sitting in the House Transportation Committee, where it has seen no debate or testimony, according to the Legislature’s website.

“It’s not going to make it to the governor’s desk this summer,” O’Brien said. “I think the thought was let’s see what happens with the lawsuit. We’re not in any rush to do this.”

Before arriving in court, the dispute had been playing out in meetings of the Tunbridge Selectboard and Planning Commission for two years. For now, Echeverria and Pratt argue that because trails aren’t “a part of the town highway system,” they aren’t within the purview of the Selectboard.

Vermont Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Mann dismissed the first suit in December for “lack of ripeness.” The plaintiffs’ “mere fears that the town may one day seek to maintain the trails on the Dodge Farm property are not sufficient” to issue a judgment, Mann wrote.

Due to the dismissal of the first lawsuit, no ruling was made on Tunbridge’s authority to maintain trails.

Norwich-based attorneys Geoffrey Vitt and Sarah Merlo represented the couple in court. Neither could be reached for comment.

“Our motion is largely the same,” the town’s attorney Michael Tarrant said about the second motion to dismiss. “But this time it’s also premised on this initial matter: that this is Groundhog Day.”

Tarrant said he wasn’t aware of the bill until it had been introduced.

“My view is that substantively it’s unnecessary, but certainly any clarity wouldn’t hurt,” he said. “I think the law is already clear. But a double down on clearness, it couldn’t hurt anybody.”

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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