Maine has miles of hotly contested abandoned roads

By Abigail Curtis, Bangor Daily News Staff Miles of old roads that have been designated as derelict or derelict run through every town and county in rural Maine, tracing worn lines through woods and former farm fields. But although the designation legal means that municipalities no longer have to maintain them, clear them or take care of them, it does not mean that the roads are no longer used.

By Abigail Curtis, Bangor Daily News Staff

Miles of old roads that have been designated as derelict or derelict run through every town and county in rural Maine, tracing worn lines through woods and old farm fields. But while the legal designation means municipalities no longer have to maintain, plow or care for them, it doesn’t mean the roads aren’t in use.

People live along some of them and others travel there on snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and heavy trucks. In fact, by state law, most are still accessible to the public via an easement.

This leaves those who live on these roads in the lurch. Since no one is responsible for maintaining Maine’s derelict and derelict roads, the roads often become hotly contested, pitting those who live there against those who want to use them for recreation and commerce.

Quarrels over the roads turned neighbors into enemies and eroded relations between landowners and the general public. Arguments have even led to threats of violence with guns, machetes and, on one memorable occasion, a medieval-style battle axe.

“We have real dills. Some of them turn into real Hatfield and McCoy situations,” said Roberta Manter de Fayette, who lives along an abandoned road and helps run the organization. Maine Roads. “It becomes a real war between who owns it and who has what rights, especially during mud season. Mud season has some really hot tempers.

The problem is generalized. Manter has a large map of the state on his wall with 250 pins, each representing a city with a problem road. Many cities have multiple problem roads.

Although other states have abandoned or discontinued roads, the problem is particularly acute here, according to Bill Kelly, a Belfast lawyer who has represented many municipalities in cases involving abandoned and derelict roads.

“We see it more because of the nature of Maine – a large state, with rural areas served by roads that are no longer maintained,” he said. “We really are fertile ground to have fights about it.”

The story of abandoned roads is, in a way, the story of post-colonial Maine. When the first European settlers arrived here, most of the land was forested. Beginning in the 1700s, farmers cleared trees for pasture and cropland. Over the next century and a half agriculture became increasingly important, with small farms dotting the landscape and agricultural fields largely replacing forests.

Roads were built to link farms and farmhouses with each other and village centers. They became the responsibility of the city, county or state in three different ways, Kelly said. Private roads could be deeded to a city, could be created by county commissioners, or become a municipal road via a “public easement,” he said. That’s when the general public has been using the road for 20 years, not just bumping into it.

“We’re talking about any old mom and pop who drives her to work or the store or the cemetery,” he said.

But Maine’s busy rural landscape began to change with the outbreak of the Civil War. Over the next few decades, many farms were abandoned and fields grew back into forests. Today, forests once again cover nearly 90 percent of Maine, but even though the state’s terrain would seem almost unrecognizable to a farmer in the 1850s, the old roads — or sometimes remnants of them — are still there.

And even if the roads have been deemed abandoned or discontinued, constant maintenance, especially in a state where winter frosts give way to muddy spring ruts, is still necessary. The vast network of lightly traveled roads became a problem that local, county, and state government agencies no longer wanted to be tasked with solving.

Before 1965, the solution was simple, if drastic. Cities simply voted to remove a road. If they did, the road would legally cease to exist and the adjoining landowners would own up to the center line of the old road.

“The problem with that is that it left people landlocked,” Manter said.

This meant that a person who owned property along the road was no longer guaranteed a way to get to and from their land.

Cities have tried to solve this problem by turning old public roads into private roads, so that people who owned land along them still have access to them, but not the general public.

The courts have ruled this approach unconstitutional, Manter said.

So, in an attempt to solve the problem, the Maine legislature passed a law in 1965 stating that, in most cases, when a road is abandoned, it automatically becomes a public easement. The public can then use the road, but no one is required to maintain it.

To add to the confusion, aborting and abandoning a route are two different things. To halt a road, a community’s legislative body – such as residents at the annual municipal meeting – must vote to do so. But it is elected officials or another governmental authority who decide to abandon a road. They can do this if the city hasn’t maintained the road for 30 consecutive years. No compensation is required if abandonment is the chosen course.

None of this is simple, and the stakes can be high, according to experts like Manter and Kelly.

“It gets complicated,” Kelly said. “Frankly, a lot of lawyers don’t really understand that.”

But that could soon change.

The state is about to pass a bill that establish a commission on abandoned and disused roads, sponsored by Rep. Dan Newman, R-Belgrade. The House and Senate gave the green light and the bill was approved by the Appropriations Committee on Monday. It has yet to be signed into law by Governor Janet Mills.

The commission would be made up of 12 members, including employees from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the Department of Transportation and the Office of the Attorney General. Other appointed members will have experience with county governments, land trusts, real estate law, woodlot owners, ATV and snowmobile groups, and those who own property on derelict or derelict roads.

The committee will develop recommendations, review legislation affecting abandoned and disused roads, and serve as a vehicle for finding solutions to individual problems related to these roads.

That could be a boon for places like Freedom, a town of 750 in Waldo County that maintains 13 miles of roads. Coach Steve Bennett estimates there are up to 10 miles of abandoned roads and 10 miles of abandoned roads there as well.

Disagreements on the roads have already resulted in lawsuits and disputes between neighbors, and as more people move to Freedom, he expects the problems to increase.

“We will grow and these roads will become more problematic. I don’t think the big cities understand the problem that some of these small towns have,” he said. “I can’t think of a city that hasn’t had a big controversy, at least once, on a road. As a state, we are still struggling with this.

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