BETHEL — Bethel selectmen have voted against pursuing court action to determine if the town has the right to use Daisy Bryant Road to access Bingham Forest.

Instead, they will follow — for now — Selectman Don Bennett’s suggestion to seek a face-to-face solution with road residents who oppose the plan to use the road to get to a planned recreational trail network.

They will proceed with the hope that the state will cut them some slack on a time line requiring they demonstrate progress on a management plan that includes the development of recreational resources on the land.

The road’s residents, who learned in June the road would be used for trail access, are challenging the legality of an easement the town claims it has over the road.

The Bethel Forest Authority, which oversees the 2,300-acre parcel, voted last month to recommend to selectmen that a survey of the easement be done, and also that a court declaratory judgment be sought on whether the easement is valid for the intended use. The legal fees would be paid from BFA funds earned from wood harvesting on the land.

BFA member Jarrod Crockett, who attended Monday’s selectmen’s meeting, said without a legal validation of the right of access, there is no point in investing in the road or the trails.

But Bennett thought legal action might be premature, and he read a statement of his concerns. He said, in part: “I realize that we have a disagreement about the Daisy Bryant Road and the extent of its uses. But to simply start the very costly process of declaratory judgment without a determined effort on both sides, let me repeat that, on both sides of the issue to resolve it without spending the town’s treasures is wrong.

“One of the first things to go will be the proceeds from the Bingham Forest; will it be enough to pay the legal fees? If not, it’s our tax dollars to clean it up.”

And, Bennett said, “Let’s first try the less costly way for both sides … What if both sides come at this in terms of, what can we do on a perhaps year-to-year agreement that allows trail building to continue using the Daisy Bryant Road, along with assurances in writing from the BFA that we will work together to form a plan to secure safe access for those using the road. Trim back brush; add some gravel where it is obvious that it is needed. Add a culvert, maybe it will cost some money but I would rather spend some stumpage money on the Daisy Bryant Road here in town than send the money to Portland (for legal fees). We must exhaust every option to resolve this problem before we send all of our money south. This needs to be about ‘Community, Not Contest.’”

Bennett said buying time might also allow an opportunity to seek an alternate route.

Crockett expressed concern that if an agreement were to be reached directly with the road landowners, all of them would have to sign on for it to work. “It would only take one to hold it up,” he said.

He also said if the BFA does not demonstrate progress on the management plan in December, when the state Attorney General expects a report, the land might have to be turned over to Maine. Crockett said state officials said in 2009 that if Maine took over the land, “they were going to cut it,” and the future of the property would be uncertain.

Crockett said that several years ago, when a consent decree was reached with the state for Bethel to take over the land from the Bethel Water District, there were conservation organizations that were also interested in acquiring the property. The consent decree allowed Bethel to keep local control, he said.

Bennett said Bethel should simply tell the state that the town has “a point of negotiation that we have to work through, and please bear with us.

“If we try (options) and they don’t work, that’s fine, we’ll take the legal route, or we’ll all decide as a community here that our treasure’s going to go to the state,” he said, rather than potentially spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees.

He noted the Bingham land has been part of Bethel history since the 1800s.

Daisy Bryant Road resident Tammy Davis said when she and other road residents found out about the trail project in June, after it was already underway, and they began to read more about the plan, they found oversights that made it hard to support. She said if the town proceeded with more care and “forward thinking … knowing what we have to preserve, I think we could have a healthy conversation and be very transparent.”

Selectmen eventually voted to reject the BFA recommendation, with Selectman Peter Southam abstaining because he is vice president of the Mahoosuc Pathways board. Selectmen did agree to get an estimate for a road survey.

“A survey will tell you who you need to negotiate with,” Crockett said.


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