This region has a long tradition of public access. The earliest European settlers wanted the Vermont countryside to be available to everyone. Many people still share access to their lands, which offers a rich quality of life to our community. It’s about neighborliness. It’s about a land ethic. It is sharing one’s enjoyment of beautiful undeveloped farms, meadows and forests with others. It can be a profound legacy when a landowner legally ensures access to their property for future generations.
A trail easement is a legal agreement that allows others to use a corridor on someone’s land in a manner described in the agreement. It can be as simple as a right-of-way benefitting a single neighbor or it may be able to offer access to a larger group of people. It can be limited to foot traffic, horse traffic or for another particular purpose. For the most part, GMHA expects its trail easements to be perpetual.
•One that provides a quality riding experience: GMHA is local so it seeks to preserve traditional favorite trail riding routes. GMHA’s form of trail easement has some very light conservation covenants – namely that all uses within the 26-foot wide trail corridor (a 6-foot wide track with 10 feet of “buffer” on each side) will remain compatible with horse-riding through relatively natural lands.
•One that benefits its members: GMHA’s nonprofit mission is all about equestrian activities. While GMHA welcomes collaboration with others, it must focus its limited resources on its mission and members. For this reason GMHA’s easement only provides access to GMHA members and event riders, not the general public. That being said, landowners can voluntarily open the same trail to the general public or other groups for compatible trail uses if they choose. GMHA’s trail easement does not prohibit other compatible easements (more on this later).
•Strong but flexible: GMHA strives to be a good neighbor. GMHA understands trail problems may arise in the future: overuse, erosion, vandalism. So in consultation with the landowner, GMHA reserves the right to close a trail – only to its members and event riders – to help a trail recover, or for safety, or any number of reasons. If other groups use the same trail, they would decide for themselves whether this is appropriate for their own groups’ uses.
Vermont law encourages private landowners to allow public access by helping to limit landowners’ liability in the event a trail user is injured. The law says a landowner shall not be liable for personal injury or property damage of a recreational user so long as the landowner did not cause the injury by intentional or extremely reckless misconduct. For landowners to be protected by this statute, they may not charge fees for the access. See the full statute.
Together, GMHA and the landowner will decide on the terms of a management plan that distributes maintenance responsibilities. GMHA relies upon a committed group of trail steward volunteers and land ambassadors to assist with the maintenance of trails and stay in close, supportive communication with landowners. GMHA always consults with the landowner prior to planning major modifications, such as cutting large trees, opening stone walls, or building bridges. GMHA will usually notify the landowner prior to any minor trail work, such as clearing debris from culverts.
When GMHA holds an easement, it uses “best practices” to decide whether conditions are or are not favorable for equestrian use. It can choose to close trails to its own members and event riders whenever it is likely such use will significantly damage trails, conditions may be unsafe or for any other reason that equestrian use is inappropriate. When GMHA “closes” a trail for these reasons, it is only closing the trail to GMHA members and guests. It does not restrict use by other trail user groups that have secured separate permissions or easements from the landowner to use the trail.
GMHA wants to be a partner with a landowner and preserve relationships within the community whenever possible. Our members and competitors would not enjoy these trail experiences if it were not for landowners’ incredible generosity and dedication to their lands. In the event we disagree, we will do our best to communicate and to resolve our differences in a constructive way. GMHA is open to mediation, and our easement provides for arbitration.
Yes, however GMHA is the sole holder on its easements due to its specific mission and bylaws. Although more than one entity can be listed on a trail easement together, it creates a complicated dynamic because one group does not want to be responsible for another group’s liabilities.
Yes, and GMHA welcomes collaboration with other trail groups. However, once a GMHA trail easement is in place, it reserves the right to review and approve future easements on the same trail corridor. This is so GMHA can ensure future uses will be compatible with equestrian riding. For example, snow machines in winter and hikers in the summer are compatible. Motor vehicles that churn up mud or uses that pose hazards to horses and riders would not be compatible. It is common for groups to hold separate easements while cooperating under a flexible written agreement outlining when and how they plan to work together and who the primary contact people are. The proposal to add more easements or uses naturally begins with the landowner.
Yes, GMHA’s trail easement is compatible with typical farm- and forestry-friendly conservation easements used by the land trusts active in this area: Vermont Land Trust and Upper Valley Land Trust and New England Forestry Foundation. It is also compatible with the State’s Current Use program.
No, GMHA’s trail easements do not qualify under federal law for a tax deduction. The few conservation covenants utilized in its trail easement are governed purely by Vermont law which help the trail easement be stronger, more meaningful and enforceable. However, any funds you donate to GMHA for its trail maintenance fund or other operations likely qualify as charitable contributions and are tax deductible. If land conservation is of interest to you or broad-spectrum public access along with land conservation, we are happy to put you in touch with the land trusts mentioned above.
No, there is no legal obligation to notify neighbors. Typically the neighbors will already be familiar with the trail use. The trail easement is a legal formality that does not necessarily change conditions on the ground, so there would not normally be any reason for a neighbor to be involved.
GMHA will not post its trail maps on the Internet. To help protect landowner privacy, no land parcels are used on its trail maps, which are only available to GMHA members (or event riders). The trail maps provide clear statements that the trails shown are not necessarily open to other uses or other members of the public.
Yes, our existing trail donors would love to hear from you, tell you about their experiences and answer any questions you may have.
The major components of developing a trail easement are:
- Meet and discuss goals with landowner; review existing maps; walk trail(s)
- Customize a legal document that meets the needs of the landowner and GMHA
- Define the trail location and property boundary with GPS; create GIS map
- Agree on a maintenance plan between the landowner and GMHA GMHA works with a mapping professional who uses Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to produce data that becomes part of the legal easement document. GMHA absorbs this cost.
Costs to Landowner: The landowner is normally represented by his/her attorney for the easement donation. In addition to legal expense to review and approve the easement document, conduct title search, etc., the landowner may incur additional expense if a more detailed map, prepared by a licensed surveyor, is desired. (GMHA encourages the landowner to seek legal advice and review; however, this is entirely the landowner’s choice.)
To start the process contact Chelle Grald or call 802-457-1509 ext. 219.