This is Hagan Road, also known as town highway #46. It’s a dirt and rock hardscrabble road near our camp in the hills of Essex County. For decades, Edward and I and various friends and family members have walked this road, which ascends a steep hill and after another mile or so, makes a sharp right, and then takes you on a pleasant, five mile loop back to the road “proper.”
There’s a town highway map–as there are online, for all Vermont municipalities–and our town’s shows Hagan Road as ending mysteriously after .47 miles, petering out into the white space of the map. But we know all too well that the road continues, and that it’s a real, albeit rough road, and not just a trail. That’s because all too regularly, we see it traversed by pickups, logging trucks, four-wheeler ATVs, bicycles, horseback riders and even the occasional moped, as just zipped by as I sit here typing this blog post. Moreover, there are at least half a dozen camps on that phantom 5 mile stretch of road, and camp owners use motor vehicles for access.
This is a Class 4 road. That means the Selectboard of the Town can use its judgment to decide whether or not “necessity, the public good, or convenience of town inhabitants” warrant regular maintenance. 19 V.S.A. 302. This Town has decided not to maintain this road over the years, no doubt because there is not a single full-time residence anywhere on the road, real or phantom–and this little Essex County town isn’t exactly flush with money to be keeping up little-used roads.
Prior to 1974, Vermont roads were either roads or trails, period. But that year, the Vermont legislature decided that Selectboards of municipalities had to classify all Town roads. Since then, that system of classification determines what the Town’s statutory maintenance obligations are, for any given roads. (As an aside, I became interested in the ways and history of Vermont roads when I served as the Guildhall Town Clerk and Treasurer, from 2006-2012.)
The classification system is simple, as follows:
State Highways: maintained exclusively by the State of Vermont;
Class #1: town highways that are extensions of existing state highways. Must be maintained; Class #2: those Town highways deemed “as most important to the Town”, with that decision made by the Selectboard in consultation with VTrans; Class #3: All traveled town highways other than Class 1 and 2; Class #4: Maintained only to the extent required by necessity, the public good, and the convenience of Town inhabitants. Also part of the classification system are legal trails, for which the Town has no statutory obligation to maintain, and ancient roads. (Read more about ancient roads in Vermont, in a recent New Yorker magazine article).
In general, class 1, 2, and 3 roads must be kept in “good and sufficient repair during all seasons of the year, although Selectboards can elect not to plow Class 2 and 3 roads if there are “safety considerations for the traveling public and municipal employees.”
And although Towns are not generally required to maintain Class #4s like Hagan Road, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has interpreted Vermont case law to mean that Selectboards are required to keep bridges and culverts on those roads in good repair. That answers a recent question that occurred to me as we walked our 5 mile route and I saw repeated examples of newly repaired, shiny culverts, which seem oddly out of place in this wilderness.