“It’s as though it didn’t exist as far as the Grand List goes. The acreage hasn’t been listed on the Grand List for at least 110 years,” said Waitsfield Conservation Commission member Leo Laferriere about a 74-acre parcel of land on the top of the Northfield Ridge.
The land, referred to as Lot 42 straddles the Northfield Ridge and abuts the town’s municipal forest. The town has been aware of the parcel’s existence since the early 2000s but last year made a concerted effort to track its historical ownership as well as find heirs of the last known owners.
“We really have no idea why it was not on the Grand List. I can’t help but think there’s an explanation for this,” Laferriere said.
Once the town became aware of the land, Laferriere and conservation commissioner member Ted Joslin undertook an historical review and research project, seeking the provenance and potential owner of the parcel as it exists today.
In January 2020 the select board, on behalf of the conservation commission, asked the Vermont Probate Court to award the town title to the land. In that letter, the town noted that the Scrag Forest is a 70-acre working forest used for timber, sugaring, natural resource management and public recreation. The letter notes that after learning about the parcel it did extensive land records research in Waitsfield and Northfield as well as in the probate court records.
“When Vermont towns were first organized, they commonly were subdivided into a checkerboard pattern, with the created lots numbered and those lots drawn by the early settlers as their initial ownership. However, some lots were drawn on the public rights where the property tax was designated for a particular purpose, such as the grammar school, first-settled minister and College Right. Title to these lots was retained by the towns and they were instead leased to private owners. Waitsfield’s Lot No. 42 was such a “leased” lot, with its property tax designated for the benefit of the grammar school. The leased lot situation prevailed until passage of Act 152 (2018), effective January 1, 2020, which altered 24 V.S.A. § 2409 by converting these leases into fee title. By this letter, Waitsfield seeks reacquisition as the original Lessor of its now formerly leased land,” the town wrote in its letter.
Lot 42 contains about 140 acres and lies just east of the Northfield Mountain ridgeline and just south of the summit of Scrag Mountain. It is primarily wooded with some exposed bedrock, and contains no structures, permanent roads or other improvements. There is no deeded access to it. Past use has apparently been primarily for timber production, although a very small area along its east boundary may have been used for other agricultural purposes.
Of the original approximately 140 acres, Waitsfield owns 60 acres as part of its Scrag Mountain Town Forest. The remaining 80 acres or so are split between six acres last owned by either Henry A. Culver or Frank W. Chase, (another unresolved title situation that the town is pursuing) and the approximately 74 acres in the A. E. Covell estate. The 74 acres are bordered on the north by the Waitsfield/Northfield town line, on the west by the Waitsfield Scrag Forest, on the south by the Scrag Forest and the Culver/Chase property and on the east by Culver/Chase and the Waitsfield/Northfield town line.
The town’s research shows that Covell acquired Lot 42 (less 6 acres owned by Culver/Chase) in March 1912. He died and his wife Clemmie was appointed executrix in October 1914. In 1916 his widow deeded a 60-acre portion of the land to William Plastridge. That parcel later came into town ownership as the 60-acre Tucker parcel, leaving 74 acres in the Covell name. There are no deeds showing the conveyance of the 74 acres.
A decree of distribution regarding the estate of A. E. Covell from August 1941 was found in the Northfield land records, but it had not been recorded until 13 years after the date of the decree. That decree made no reference to land in Waitsfield.
“Somewhere between 1916 and now, for reasons/actions unknown, both the Covell and Culver/Chase properties were dropped from Waitsfield’s Grand List. Accordingly, for many years, the property has not been assessed and no property taxes have been collected. With respect to the Covells there are no individuals by that name in the local area. No one has asserted possession of the property. A logical conclusion is that, for reasons unknown, the Covells have long abandoned this Waitsfield land,” the town wrote in its January 2020 letter.
“The court has not yet ruled on the 1/20 request. Some, but not all, likely heirs have been located, but no confirmation and no communication has been made. It is all dependent upon what the court wants us to do. The land, as described in the letter to the court, is of marginal productivity (some exposed bedrock, very limited timber production potential, landlocked with no nearby road, high elevation). The only possible explanation for no property tax invoices, that I can think of is that town listers thought (or were convinced by owners) the land was largely worthless and just didn’t bother taxing anyone for owning it. But this is just speculation on my part,” he added.