Bikers ride down the West River Trail in Dummerston. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Bikers ride down the West River Trail in Dummerston. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Wednesday June 19, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- The ownership and future of the popular West River Trail is being called into question, with one Dummerston official going so far as to say that the trail organization may be "trespassing."

Furthermore, some residents just north of the trail's current terminus in Dummerston have signed a petition opposing further development due to privacy concerns.

Representatives of the non-profit Friends of the West River Trail are confident that they're on firm legal ground, and they're pledging to work with property owners and possibly re-route future sections of the trail.

But for now, trail development has come to a halt pending resolution of the controversies.

"We've put on hold plans to expand ... until all of this is settled," said Alex Wilson, a Dummerston resident who sits on the steering committee for the trail's lower section.

The trail is supposed to roughly follow the 36-mile former West River Railroad route from Brattleboro to Londonderry.

While hikers have been trekking that path since the railway's demise in the late 1930s, it was only within the last two decades that local advocates have envisioned a more formal trail route.

The trail is well-developed in the north between Londonderry and Townshend. More recently, the trail group has begun publicizing the southern section between Brattleboro (with a trail head at the Marina) to an access point on Rice Farm Road in Dummerston.

That's where complications have arisen. At a recent meeting, Dummerston Lister Doug Hamilton told the Selectboard that "there's a question of ownership of the land" where the trail already has been finished.

The presentation was characterized as informational, since the listers have not rendered a decision on the matter. But it is possible, Hamilton added, that the trail group is "basically trespassing."

He cited a March letter from Fisher & Fisher Law Offices, which represents the towns of Dummerston and Brattleboro. In it, attorneys Jodi French and Bob Fisher say the railway was "abandoned" in the 1930s by West River Railroad Company.

The former railway subsequently "was not used for public purposes by the state of Vermont, and it has not been used for public purposes since the 1930s," the letter says.

Therefore, the attorneys conclude, title to the land has "reverted to the prior owner(s), their heirs, successors and assigns."

That would be a big problem for trail advocates who believe they already have purchased a section of the former railway stretching from Brattleboro to a former rail bridge abutment on Quarry Road in Dummerston.

Jason Cooper, a member of the lower section steering committee, contends records show that ownership of the railroad property -- rather than being abandoned -- was transferred from the railroad company to the state, from the state to a quarry operator and then to a salvage company called H.E. Salzberg Co. Inc.

Cooper said his company -- Byron Corp. -- acquired the land from the salvage company in May 2011 and then, a few months later, signed it over to Friends of the West River Trail.

That seemed like a windfall for trail advocates, who had believed they would have to negotiate with individual property owners for easements. In order to confirm his purchase, Cooper said he subsequently received opinions from several attorneys who said the trail group had, in fact, acquired ownership of the former railway.

"There is no question in our minds about who owns it," he said, adding that he believes there are flaws in the Fisher firm's legal arguments.

If Cooper is correct, though, that could cause a different problem for the trail organization. Dummerston officials say the group's non-profit status does not present the town from levying taxes on the former railway.

"If they own the land, we should tax them. And it's going to be an expensive tax bill," Hamilton told Dummerston Selectboard.

But Wilson said Friends of the West River Trail "will make the case that it should be tax-exempt" based on the trail's public use and other factors. And even if the trail is taxable, Cooper added, "I'm not sure what its tax value would be."

It may fall to attorneys for both sides to resolve the matter. Trail advocates concede they should have been in touch with Dummerston officials sooner in order to head off any such disputes.

"We're committed to working with the authorities in Dummerston," said Lester Humphreys, a Friends of the West River board member.

They'll also be working with worried residents who own land along the trail's projected future path in Dummerston. Nine of those residents on Rice Farm and Quarry roads have signed a petition saying a walking/biking trail near their homes "would compromise our privacy and safety."

"These people are very concerned, as I would be," Hamilton said. "I think any of us would be."

Cooper said the trail group understands those concerns and already has approached the Nature Conservancy, which owns nearby land that could serve as an alternate trail route in Dummerston.

"The response from the Nature Conservancy has been great," Cooper said. "Not only is it an option, it's our preference. We don't want to alienate the neighbors."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.