When Fayelyne Genness bought a small piece of land on Brown Road in Mercer, she hoped to homestead, raise her own animals and food and live off the grid.

What she didn’t picture was a monthslong dispute with neighbors about use of the dirt road, her only viable access to her property, involving snow blockades and an alleged shooting incident meant as intimidation.

Since 2014, Genness and other neighbors on the road say they have been bullied by Mercer’s first selectman, who they say is trying to block access on the road. The only town records showing the status of Brown Road are minutes from the 1986 Town Meeting, which indicate that residents voted to discontinue the road but says nothing about it being closed to the public. Vern Worthen, the first selectman, says the road is private.

“I know our town attorney has researched and cannot find any record that road is public,” he said.

The dispute about such access is not unique to Mercer, and the case comes amid legislative efforts to address a widespread problem on Maine’s rural roads.

Both the Maine Department of Transportation and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine frequently receive complaints related to the use of abandoned and discontinued roads, and both groups estimate that the number of concerns they hear is small compared to the number fielded by individual municipalities.

“It’s so unclear and often not a public process,” Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, said of the rules governing old roads. “The roads just sort of disappear, and under the law that can happen. If the municipality doesn’t maintain the road for a certain period of time, it becomes discontinued, but there’s no notice to the people impacted that the road isn’t going to be maintained anymore.”

The DOT does not keep track of how many abandoned or discontinued roads are in the state, and there is no consistent process for municipalities to track when and how a road becomes discontinued.

That lack of documentation has led to problems such as the ones on Brown Road in Mercer, as well as other places around the state. Doak said his group fields about 100 complaints each year from landowners who are confused about access on rural roads.

“There’s an awful mess that’s been created over the last 40 years by the inability to deal with problems of abandoned and discontinued roads in the state,” he said. “These situations happen all over the state – this uncertainty where the law isn’t clear, you have landowners on both sides of the issue and then you have the towns, and it’s a big mess.”

ROAD MAINTENANCE

Road maintenance by landowners and disputes about road access are some of the most common complaints that the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine encounters, according to Doak. The group recently helped to pass a new law that makes it a crime to damage a public easement or an abandoned road, and it is working on legislation to streamline the municipal process for abandoning or discontinuing a road.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the DOT, said that while the state does not track abandoned and discontinued roads, officials frequently take calls from the public on problems related to abandoned and discontinued roads.

“It’s certainly a topic, especially in more rural areas, that is of concern,” Talbot said.

Town officials also frequently deal with the problem, such as in Mount Vernon, where a recent dispute arose on Bog Road after a lack of proper town record keeping led to the road being discontinued twice. Property owners each cited a different decision by the town in their arguments, according to Clyde Dyar, a selectman and the town’s general assistance administrator.

In Madison, property owner Phil Morey said he too is concerned about liability on a partially discontinued road, Conjockety Road. Morey believes the road near his property is private and that he is responsible for maintenance. Town Manager Tim Curtis said the road near Morey’s land is public, though it is not maintained by the town.

Morey said he has handled maintenance on the road but is concerned it could lead to problems.

“What happens if somebody gets hurt there because of the work I did?” he said. “Will they say I set a trap for them? That’s what I’m worried about.”

The woodland association considers maintenance by landowners when the road remains open to the public to be the biggest problem related to rural roads, according to Doak.

LANDOWNERS AT A LOSS

“Our biggest problem has been landowners that need the road having to maintain the road and then the public, or just anybody, using the road and damaging it, and the landowners having to take responsibility for it,” he said. “Landowners are fixing the road and then people can go in during mud season or do whatever they want, run up and down the road, and the landowner fixes it.”

In Fayette, resident Roberta Manter said she and her husband have been maintaining their road, Young Road, for years, since it was discontinued by the town but remained a public way. They’ve had to rebuild the road every two to three years because of damage from logging trucks and other traffic, according to Manter, whose frustrations led her to start a Facebook page, Maine ROADWays, to provide a gathering place and resource for people with road problems.

“For years I’ve been collecting stories of people facing these issues,” Manter said. “We have people who’ve been shot at. We have selectmen blocking off roads and saying they never were a road. We have people who have had to sell their houses and move out because they could no longer get to their house. The decisions are all over the board, and they don’t make any sense at all.”

Maintenance problems also came up in the recent dispute in Mercer, where Worthen is allegedly trying to block a section of Brown Road. Worthen, though, says he has never tried to cut off access completely to Genness or anyone else, but was prompted to take action because the road was getting torn up.

“We are currently dealing with damage to our road and property by use of outside individuals,” Worthen wrote in May in a letter to the Mercer Board of Selectmen. “Littering, threats of bodily harm and property damage have led to, myself seeking and receiving a protection from harassment order, by the courts on certain individuals currently using the road.”

THE ROAD FROM HERE

Threats, injuries and thousands of dollars spent in legal fees are not unusual outcomes in rural Maine’s road disputes.

In the Mercer case, both Worthen and other neighbors say the dispute has escalated to threats, including one instance in which Genness claimed she was shot at intentionally as a means of intimidation.

In Oxford County, a 40-year-old man, Neil Lanteigne, said he was beat up by a group of landowners to the point that he had a broken eye socket, four broken ribs and a fractured vertebra after walking his dog on an old road near his property on the boundary separating Paris and West Paris.

Lanteigne said he was accused of trespassing on a private road, Finn Road, but he said he was walking on a portion he believed to be town-maintained.

In the Franklin County town of Strong, Roger Lambert said he spent $100,000 fighting a 12-year dispute about a discontinued road, Dickey Road, that recently ended with a superior court judge ruling in his favor.

The dispute originated when a neighboring family subdivided a property and decided to build a camp on one of the new lots with access over Dickey Road, which was discontinued more than 60 years ago, Lambert said. He said the two families had a neighborly agreement about use of the road for years, but that it changed after the camp was built and traffic on the road increased.

“As a result we have a 12-year court fight and a couple hundred thousand dollars (spent),” Lambert said.

The Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine is working on legislation – L.D. 1325 – that would create a public process for the discontinuance of a town road and require a record to be filed with the county registry of deeds describing its status.

Existing law states that a road may be considered abandoned if the town or county has not maintained it for 30 years – but there’s nothing in place requiring towns to keep a record of the change and nothing that outlines how a discontinued road should operate without the town to oversee it.

The proposed law – similar to one proposed in 2013 by Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton – gives town officials the ability to make any town road discontinued by following a five-step public notification process.

The discontinued road then would belong to property owners but would continue to stay open to the public.

Rep. Catherine Nadeau, of Winslow, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is just “touching the iceberg” of issues involving abandoned roads.

“We’re trying to get the towns to know when exactly their road was discontinued or abandoned and keep a record of it,” Nadeau said. “We just want clarity and that’s what this bill is attempting to address.”

David Cotta, of China, a former state representative, also testified in favor of the bill in April, saying there are many cases all over Maine of confusion about the public’s right to use or restriction from using a road once it has been abandoned or discontinued.

“Due to poor record keeping, it can be nearly impossible to determine if the public easement had been legally extinguished,” Cotta said.

But the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine County Commissioners Association have opposed the bill, saying there is not enough funding for the proposed changes, which include the requirement that towns compile a list of abandoned and discontinued roads.

Nadeau said the cost and added work of tracking roads would be negligible, and some residents say the problems are too widespread and severe to not be addressed.