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Tolland Historical Society: Who Owns Our Roads?

by Peter Palmer

Before Tolland was settled there were no public roads. Paths and ways existed because of use, not designation. Anticipating the creation of Tolland, the proprietors, in 1713, laid out the town center at Meeting House Hill (Grant Hill Road).

Who owns our roads?

It is not true that the government OWNS all our public roads.

Before Tolland was settled there were no public roads. Paths and ways existed because of use, not designation. Anticipating the creation of Tolland, the proprietors, in 1713, laid out the town center at Meeting House Hill (Grant Hill Road). The layout consisted of eight lots, each 40 acres in area, on each side of a 20 rod, 330 feet wide road. The grant of a lot did not include the land on the intended town common. A similar layout on Baxter Street in 1714 was only 10 rods 165 feet wide. I have not found the layout of Tolland Green but it appears to have also been 10 rods wide. Other roads are two rods wide, but there were other widths. (There was no standard width required until some time later.) Searching the town land records you can find parts of Grant Hill Road, not needed for public use, conveyed to the then owner of the adjacent land.

Homesteads granted in town might have been a square containing 40 acres in the middle of nowhere with no designated roadway. Depending where the settler built his home and on common travel, a roadway developed. In the 1700s when the way became necessary for common usage, the selectmen acquired ownership of a strip of land of a specific width as trustees for the town. The former owner of the strip was granted an equal area of land in return.

By the 1800s the practice was changed to a road easement layout. The selectmen decreed a road location by its centerline and width, to be a public way in the needed location, but ownership of the land remained with the original owner. The understanding that ownership of the land reverts to the abutter is a casual statement that the right of passage in the public has ended and the land is now free of the public easement. Common knowledge is that each abutter now owns to the center of the former road. This may not be strictly true. As the land was always owned by the original owner, this is only a rebuttable presumption, created because it is sometimes too hard to determine the original property line. (As a practical matter a rebuttable presumption is ‘if you can’t convince me otherwise this is how we will decide’.) If it is important enough and the information remains available, the original line is reestablished.

For instance Cassidy Hill Road, running along the Tolland-Coventry boundary is entirely in Coventry. If it were to be abandon as a public way, properties in Tolland would not gain title to the northerly half of the former roadway, since those properties never contributed to the road.

Other roads just happened, and with enough use by the general public, it acquired enforceable rights to continue using the passage. Owners of land on each side of the way also have enforceable rights common to public ways. Under this method of creation, you can see that roads can move, and grow. So regardless of the road’s creation, if more space for such things as grading and drainage were needed or even width, when the needed improvements were made they became part of the overall public rights.

In the 1940s, with the common practice of creating (with the approval of the government), subdivisions with their own new roadways, the subdivision owner was required to grant to the town the strips of land constituting the road. These strips are defined by the survey and are now commonly 50 feet wide. As the paved way is often only 28 feet wide you can see that the pavement does not show all the town’s ownership. In the 1700s case and in the subdivision case, if the road were to be abandon as a public way, (maybe by consolidation of lots, or the failure to fully develop the project Ie, non use), title does not revert to anyone but remains in the town.

There is more detail, but from this brief discussion, you can imagine just how much research could be needed to establish the facts to support or disprove a particular understanding of a particular roadway.

Submitted by Peter C. Palmer
Tolland Town Historian
Copyright Dec 2015 Tolland Historical Society

Peter Palmer
Written by:

Peter Palmer

Peter Palmer is Tolland Historical Society's Assistant to Barbara Cook and Archivist. Submissions are on behalf of the Tolland Historical Society.