“A few weeks ago, as you’ll remember, we were in Milton and we were talking with the town historian there,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “And he had mentioned glebe land.”
“When Benning Wentworth chartered every town (in what’s now Vermont), land was given for a church to be built, property for a rectory for the priest to live, property for the priest to rent out,” Jim Ballard of the Milton Historical Society said.
“Glebe land is a small subset of a larger term that we have come to call lease lands,” Perkins said. “We’re going to oversimplify this today so it fits into a TV show — but Benning Wentworth, (colonial) governor of New Hampshire — he started granting lands. He started drawing squares on maps.
“Pieces of land were given for different uses and he figures, ‘well, if we put land in here for the first minister or the church, it’s probably going to be Congregational, so how do we guarantee money goes to the Anglican church?’. So, he had a requirement that they set aside land for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign (Parts). It was basically the mission arm of the Church of England.”
“The Revolution took care of most of that, but not all of it,” Ballard said.
“The state of Vermont did the same thing,” Perkins continued. “So, leases would go to what then later became UVM. They set aside land for schools; they set aside land for churches. All of that persisted on our books — and Mike, I’ve actually brought a really early surveyor’s journal. It’s not that those things are to be built on those properties; it’s that the leases from those properties go to support those things.”
“Wherever they might happen to be,” Mike Hoey said.
“One of the first U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue of lease lands was brought by the Town of New Haven (in 1823),” Perkins continued. “Daniel Webster, the famous jurist, represented New Haven, challenging the (1783) Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris said — again, paraphrasing, for all the lawyers out there — ‘you’re not going to take people’s land away’ (and the justices agreed).
“This lasted until 1927, when finally, the Vermont Supreme Court said you can quit-claim that land over to the Episcopal Church of America. So as a town, theoretically, you’re not taxing these lands. Instead, you’re taking 25 cents, 50 cents, when you could be getting hundreds of dollars in taxes for it — so it wasn’t good for the towns, either. But then in the last 15 years or so, title insurance companies (were) saying ‘you can’t get a warranty deed on this property you’re selling, Mike, because two feet of it is part of lease land’.
“In 2020 — 2020! It takes us until 2020 to take care of this colonial vestige from colonial England! Finally, the Vermont legislature passed a law that met judicial (standards) that said if towns don’t exercise their right to this land, it’ll just revert to the landowner. Seven-ish municipalities said ‘hey, we’re going to keep our right to lease land’. Everywhere else, not an issue; you can get a clean title.”
“You mentioned, Steve, the surveyor’s books,” Hoey said. “All of you at the Vermont Historical Society have digitized them so anybody can look at them remotely.”
“Absolutely,” Perkins noted. “Go to Digital Vermont — it’s part of our website — and there are three books. If you live in the northern part of the state, you may be able to find your town, and you can see where all those lots go. It’s fascinating stuff.”