BELLOWS FALLS -- The Vilas Bridge now belongs to Vermont, if you ask a certain group of citizens.
A handful of people took to the 635-foot-long structure Tuesday afternoon to "claim" it as property of Vermont, citing a stipulation in New Hampshire state law. Mike Smith, Bellows Falls Trustee Andrew Smith, Jake Stradling, Emily Peyton and the Rev. Torin Brooks convened on the bridge to read a public statement and post a declaration stating it now belongs to their state.
The Vilas Bridge, built around 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, spans the Connecticut River to connect Bellows Falls with Walpole, N.H., and was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009. A semi-annual inspection found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck. A reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure each day at the time of the closure and Bellows Falls residents and merchants say business in the village is suffering because the traffic has been severed. Many have grown frustrated that efforts to repair the bridge have been delayed due to lack of funds.
The Arch Bridge stands less than a mile away to carry people and vehicles between the states.
Brooks stood on the bridge Tuesday afternoon sporting a tricorne hat resembling the ones wore during the American Revolution and Mike Smith brought with him a Flag of the Green Mountain Boys. The two stood on concrete barriers that prohibit vehicles from crossing the bridge before the group of citizens present walked to the New Hampshire side to post their declaration claiming the bridge as property of Vermont.
"Now it's Vermont's bridge, as far as I'm concerned," Brooks said after duct-taping two copies of the declaration. "I really hope, through all this, they really do something with this bridge -- because it's just sad that they won't."
Peyton, a Putney resident and gubernatorial candidate, attended the event to show her support.
"I'm very proud of our ‘Green Mountain Boys 2.0' for combining citizen action with audacity and humor and stepping up with a new form of leadership I'd like to see all around the state," she said.
Brooks told the Reformer that claiming the bridge for Vermont was obviously a publicity stunt, but said it was one he hopes will bring attention to what Rockingham residents consider a very serious issue.
"The last five years, this bridge has been shut down, it's been abandoned, and according to New Hampshire state law, if a property's been abandoned for five years, it can be claimed by someone with just cause," he said. "If they don't want to fix it, let somebody else fix it."
Brooks said the New Hampshire state statute he was referring to is found in Chapter 471-C, titled "Custody and Escheat of Unclaimed and Abandoned Property." According to the website of the Treasury of New Hampshire, the "Unclaimed Property Act provides for the identification, recovery, and safeguard of dormant accounts or forgotten properties and their return to the rightful owner(s)." The website states most property types are presumed abandoned or unclaimed if there is not recorded activity for five years.
The website also states anyone with a desire to claim a property must file a claim form and present documentation to establish his or her identity and ownership of the property.
The New Hampshire Attorney General's Office did not return a phone call or e-mail asking for elaboration and clarification on the state statute.
Brooks and Stradling said they intended to send a video of the demonstration to every state and federal legislator in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
When asked if he was expecting a larger turnout, Brooks said he wanted to keep it small.
"If 150 people show up on the bridge, they're going to have a fit about it," he said.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.