Signs reignite easement dispute

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The Region 16 Board of Education recently had this sign installed at the beginning of an easement through Woodland Regional High School land off of Rimmon Hill Road in Beacon Falls prohibiting people from riding horses on school property during the school day.  –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
The Region 16 Board of Education recently had this sign installed at the beginning of an easement through Woodland Regional High School land off of Rimmon Hill Road in Beacon Falls prohibiting people from riding horses on school property during the school day. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Equestrians in town are up in arms over the latest action taken by school officials in an ongoing saga over an easement at Woodland Regional High School.

Two signs — one at the entrance of an easement off of Rimmon Hill Road and the other along the border of Woodland property and Matthies Park — have been installed prohibiting horses on Woodland land during the school day, much to the chagrin of local equestrians.

“As far as I’m concerned there is a good group of us that is not going to adhere to this sign because we don’t believe that it is a legal sign,” resident Mary Ellen Fernandez told the Board of Selectmen during its September meeting.

The signs were put in last month at the direction of the Region 16 Board of Education, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect. It’s the latest chapter in a back-and-forth between the Region and the town over people riding horses through the Woodland property.

The issue has been dragging on for over two years. It all started in the summer of 2013 when a landscaper working at the school put up a fence blocking a path off of Rimmon Hill Road near the back gate to the football field that residents use to cross Woodland property on horseback to get to Matthies Park.

Equestrians have said that riding on the street from Rimmon Hill Road to Matthies Park is dangerous for them as well as drivers.

The fence was subsequently taken down, but the move led equestrians to question school officials as to why it was put up in the first place. That was when many on the school board learned that equestrians passed through the property.

Citing concerns over horse manure on Woodland land, additional liability from people riding horses on its land and student safety, the school board discussed blocking the path permanently. The board sought an opinion from its legal counsel, Naugatuck attorney N. Warren “Pete” Hess III.

In a January 2014 letter, Hess wrote Region 16 would be assuming additional liability if it allowed anyone to pass through the property by horseback or any other means. He recommended the board not allow anyone to pass through Region property.

The town vowed to fight — in court if necessary — any effort by the school board to permanently block access to an easement, and sought its own legal advice.

The town contends it has a legal right for residents to traverse the property through an easement, and points to land records to prove its case.

An easement on the property dates back to a deed from 1938 when the land was conveyed from Milton Carrington to the Seymour Trust Co. The deed references a strip of land, about 20 feet wide.

“Also conveying a right of way to pass and repass for general purposes on foot, horseback with vehicle over and through other lands of the said grantor along a convenient and agreed location …” the deed reads.

The exact location of the easement referenced in the deed is currently unknown.

Subsequent deeds all refer back to the 1938 deed, including the land record from 1999 when the town sold the land to Region 16. The 1999 deed references a right of way over a 20-foot-wide strip of land set forth in a 1956 deed from Carrington to Adele Gomberwicz. The 1956 deed refers back to the one in 1938.

The town points to the records as stating clear intent that residents have a legal right to use an easement through the land.

Hess offered the board a different opinion.

In his letter to the school board, Hess stated the easement referenced is an “appurtenant easement,” which provides an owner with additional rights on other land of the grantor and is a benefit to the parcel.

Hess wrote the Seymour Trust Co. obtained absolute ownership of the land in 1938 plus the additional right to pass over other land owned by Carrington. No one obtained any rights to pass through the land purchased by Region 16, he continued. This additional right to pass through other land owned by Carrington is currently held by Region 16, the letter states.

The school board ultimately decided against blocking the path. Instead the board chose to try and reach a compromise with the town that included the town paying for a survey to map out an easement at Woodland.

Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said a survey was done last month by Meyers Associates for less than $2,000. The survey mapped out an easement through Woodland property from Rimmin Hill Road to Matthies Park. He said an invoice has been sent to Beacon Falls.

The easement issue was simmering until it boiled over again when the signs went up last month.

Yamin said the school board doesn’t want horses traveling through Woodland during the school day or school activities due to concerns over student safety.

However, residents feel the school board is “bullying” them.

“We’ve tried to play nice with them and we’ve made concessions when we don’t need to make concessions. We have a legal right and we are doing things we don’t actually have to do. … I’m speaking for a group of us, and we feel like we are being bullied by the Board of Education,” Fernandez told the Board of Selectmen.

Resident Pat Hinman, who rides horses for physical and mental therapy, concurred.

“They are bullying us because they think they can,” she said.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Chris Bielik said the board is sympathetic to the equestrians’ position and is adamantly on the side of protecting the rights of the town. He said the town is continuing to pursue a compromise, but is prepared to take the matter to court.

“If litigation is the required move to get this thing put to bed then, I hope it doesn’t go in that direction, but we are prepared to do that,” he said during the selectmen meeting.

As the issue continues to linger, Yamin is hopeful a permanent answer and compromise rests a few hundred feet up Rimmon Hill Road.

About 340 feet from the easement is a strip of land referred to as the “old highway,” which runs from Rimmon Hill Road to Matthies Park. It’s unclear whether the land is abandoned, but, according to Town Clerk Len Greene, no taxes are paid on the land.

Yamin said the land is overgrown but could be cleared for horseback riders to use to get to Matthies Park. He feels this strip of land could be a resolution that would appease the town and school board.

Yamin and Bielik took a closer look at the “old highway” together last week.

Bielik said he’s willing to explore what the cost would be to gain access to the “old highway,” adding he’s amiable to any solution that doesn’t take away the legal rights of the town.

“I’m committed to making sure the rights of Beacon Falls are still adhered to,” Bielik said.

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.