Miles of old roads that have been designated as abandoned or discontinued wind through every town and county in rural Maine, tracing worn lines across the woods and former farm fields. But although the legal designation means that 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 drive over them in snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles and heavy trucks. In fact, according to state law, most are still publicly accessible via an easement.
That leaves those who live on those roads in a lurch. Since no one is responsible for the upkeep of Maine’s abandoned and discontinued roads, the roads often become hotly contested, pitting those who live on them against those who want to use them for recreation and commerce.
Feuds over the roads have turned neighbors into enemies and have eroded the relationship between landowners and the general public. Disputes have even led to threats of violence with firearms, machetes and, on one memorable occasion, a medieval-style battle ax.
“We’ve got some real dillies. Some of these turn into real Hatfield and McCoy situations,” said Roberta Manter of Fayette, who lives along a discontinued road and helps run the organization Maine ROADWays. “It gets to be a real war between who owns it and who has what rights, especially during mud season. Mud season has really hot tempers.”
The issue is wide-spread. Manter has a large map of the state on her wall with 250 pins in it, with each one representing a town with a problem road. Many towns have multiple problem roads.
Though other states have abandoned or discontinued roads, the problem is especially acute here, according to Bill Kelly, a Belfast lawyer who has represented many municipalities in matters regarding abandoned and discontinued 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“We see it more because of the nature of Maine — a large state, with rural areas served by roads that are no longer maintained,” he said.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’re really 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 came 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 more and more important, with small farms dotting the landscape and farmfields largely replacing the forests.
Roads were built to connect farms and homesteads with one another and the village centers. They became the responsibility of the town, county or state by three different ways, Kelly said. Private roads could be deeded to a town, could be created by county commissioners, or become a town way via “public easement,” he said. That’s when the general public uses the road for 20 years, not just abutters.
“We’re talking about any old mom and pop who drives down it to get to work or to the store or to the cemetery,” he said.
But Maine’s busy rural landscape began to change around the beginning of the Civil War. Over the next few decades, many farms were abandoned and the fields grew back up into forests. Today, forests once again cover nearly 90 percent of Maine, but even though the state’s terrain would look nearly unrecognizable to an 1850s farmer, the old roads — or sometimes the 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 frost heaves give way to muddy spring ruts, is still needed. The vast network of lightly-used roads became a problem that local, county and state government bodies no longer wanted to be responsible for solving.
Before 1965, the solution was simple, though draconian. Towns simply voted to discontinue a road. If they did, the road would legally cease to exist and the abutting landowners would own up to the centerline of the old road.
“The problem with that is that it left people landlocked,” Manter said.
That means a person who owned property along the road no longer was guaranteed a way to get to and from their land.
Towns tried to solve that problem by turning old public roads into private ways, so that people who owned land along them would still have access but the general public wouldn’t.
Courts found that approach to be unconstitutional, Manter said.
So, to try to solve the problem, the Maine Legislature passed a law in 1965 saying that, in most cases, when a road becomes discontinued, it automatically becomes a public easement. The public can use the road then, but no one is required to maintain it.
To add to the confusion, discontinuing and abandoning a road are two different things. To discontinue a road, the legislative body of a community — such as residents at annual town meeting — must vote to do so. But it’s the selectmen or other governing authority who decide to abandon a road. They can do that if the town has not maintained the road for 30 consecutive years. No compensation is required if abandonment is the chosen path.
None of this is simple, and there can be a lot at stake, according to experts like Manter and Kelly.
“It gets complicated,” Kelly said. “Frankly, a lot of lawyers don’t really understand this.”
But that could soon change.
The state is on the verge of passing a bill that would establish a commission on abandoned and discontinued roads, sponsored by Rep. Dan Newman, R-Belgrade. Both the House and Senate gave the green light and the bill was approved Monday by the Appropriations Committee. It still needs to be signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.
The commission would consist of 12 members, including employees of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation & 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, woodland property owners, ATVs and snowmobile groups and those who own property on abandoned or discontinued roads.
The committee will develop recommendations, review legislation affecting abandoned and discontinued roads and serve as a path to finding solutions for individual problems related to these roads.
That could be a boon to places like Freedom, a 750-person town in Waldo County that maintains 13 miles of roads. Selectman Steve Bennett estimates that there are as many as 10 miles of abandoned roads and 10 miles of discontinued roads there, too.
Disagreements over the roads already have led to lawsuits and strife between neighbors, and as more people move to Freedom, he expects the problems to increase.
“We’re going to grow, and these roads are going to become more of an issue. I don’t think the bigger towns appreciate the problem that some of these smaller towns are having,” he said. “I can’t think of a town that hasn’t had a big controversy, at least once, over some road. As a state, we’re still struggling with that.”