NEWFANE — The public has rights, under a "prescriptive easement," to use a portion of the West River Trail in Dummerston, according to a ruling issued on Wed., Nov. 9 by Judge John W. Valente of the Windham County Superior Court.
The ruling also established that the non-profit group Friends of the West River Trail owns title to a two-acre disputed parcel of land including the trail itself, located at the Rice Farm Road end of the trail in Dummerston.
At that location, Melvin L. Mayo, the owner of several parcels of land along Rice Farm Road, had erected barriers intended to prevent use of the trail. In a judgment issued as part of his decision, Valente ordered that Mayo is "enjoined from interfering with the public's use of the railbed [the trail] for recreational purposes."
Further, he ruled that "members of the public may remove all fencing, debris, barriers, or signs discouraging use of the railbed in a fashion consistent with the terms of the easement."
A lawsuit had been brought by the Friends organization against Mayo, after efforts to resolve Mayo's land claims out of court were unsuccessful.
The prescriptive easement, as described by Valente in his ruling, provides that "all members of the public may use the railbed that runs through Mr. Mayo's southerly parcel for non-motorized recreation. This includes, but is not limited to, running, cycling, walking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing." The easement is based on trial testimony making clear the continuous use of the trail by the public over many decades.
Valente added that "the public may make reasonably necessary repairs to continue this use, such as clearing brush, mowing and repairing flooding or culverts that impede recreational use of the trail."
The trail is located on the railbed of the former 36-mile West River Railroad, which operated from Brattleboro to Londonderry from 1880 to 1936. After the railroad ceased operations, the iron rails were sold for scrap, and much of the route became a trail, used informally for decades for recreational purposes.
Friends of the West River Trail was founded in 1992 to repair and restore the trail, beginning with the 16-mile upper section from Londonderry to Townshend. In 2012, the group began repairing and improving the 3.5-mile lower section from Brattleboro to Dummerston. It acquired several adjoining parcels, including the land at the Rice Farm Trailhead involved in the dispute, and the 21-acre Riverstone Preserve located in Brattleboro.
"This removes any doubts the public may have had about using the full length of the lower section of the trail, from the trailhead near the Marina Restaurant all the way to Rice Farm Road," said Lester Humphreys, chair of the steering committee for the lower section of the trail. "We have enjoyed good relations with many of the landowners along the trail, and as stewards of the trail, we look forward to working with all of them in the future."
Humphreys also pointed to the newly-restored trail section below the new I-91 bridge. "All the bridge work is done now, and that section has been beautifully restored by Bazin Brothers, as contractor for PCL, the bridge builders," he said.
For trail information and maps, visit www.westrivertrail.org, or find the West River Trail on Facebook.