New Hampshire Municipal Association
New Hampshire Municipal Association

Court Update

Court Overturns Town Meeting Vote to Discontinue Class V Road

Town of Hinsdale v. Town of Chesterfield
No. 2004-802, 12/29/2005

North Hinsdale Road is a Class V highway that runs through the town of Chesterfield into the town of Hinsdale, where it becomes Plain Road Extension, and then Plain Road. These three roads provide north-south access between Route 63 in Chesterfield and Route 119 in Hinsdale. Plain Road runs through a thickly settled part of Hinsdale, which has contributed to increased traffic on North Hinsdale Road in recent years. On March 11, 2003, the Chesterfield Town Meeting voted under RSA 231:45-a, I to discontinue a quarter-mile section of North Hinsdale Road, beginning at the Hinsdale border and continuing northerly for a quarter of a mile into Chesterfield. As a result, residents living on Plain Road in Hinsdale were forced to travel as much as 10 miles farther to reach Route 63 in Chesterfield.

Hinsdale challenged the Chesterfield Town Meeting vote to discontinue the road. The superior court reversed the town meeting vote, and Chesterfield appealed this decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which upheld the superior court’s decision. Chesterfield argued that its town meeting vote should be affirmed unless there was “compelling evidence that the town acted unreasonably.” The Supreme Court disagreed.

The Court looked first to RSA 231:48, which states that “[a]ny person or other town aggrieved by the vote of a town to discontinue any highway, or discontinue any highway as an open highway and made subject to gates and bars, may appeal therefrom to the superior court for the county in which such highway is situate by petition…[L]ike proceedings shall be had on such petition as in the case of appeals in the laying out of class IV, V and VI highways….”

The statute plainly requires that appeals of the discontinuance of any highway should proceed similarly to appeals of the laying out of the highway. The Court has previously decided that such appeals receive “de novo” review by the superior court, meaning that the court decides the matter anew, neither restricted by nor deferring to decisions made below. However, since neither RSA 231:48 nor the Court’s previous decisions set forth the substantive legal standard for that review, the Court stated that the standard should be based upon the policy sought to be advanced by the statutory scheme. The Court held that the legal standard to review a town meeting vote to discontinue a highway “balances the aggrieved town’s interest in the road’s continuance against the burden that maintenance of the road would impose on the town that voted to discontinue the road, with the burden of proof resting on the aggrieved town.

The Court then considered whether the facts supported the superior court’s decision to reverse the Chesterfield Town Meeting vote. Using the same standard of review that it would apply to a superior court’s decision in an appeal from the layout of a highway, the Court stated that there must be “some evidence” to support the superior court’s conclusion. In this case, the Court noted that there was “substantially more than some evidence” to support the superior court’s decision.

Facts demonstrating Hinsdale’s interests in continuing the road included: (1) the discontinuance cut off the only reasonable escape route for some Hinsdale residents from such potential disasters as an accident at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant or flooding from the Connecticut River; (2) the road received substantial and increasing use by residents of Hinsdale; (3) the road gave more than 300 Hinsdale residents a way to reach Route 63 by traveling up to 10 miles less; and (4) the road allowed the police departments of both towns to provide better service by reducing response time by as much as 20 to 30 minutes.

In contrast, the evidence showed that the cost to Chesterfield of maintaining the road was “minimal,” and “the deliberate purpose of closing [that section] of the road was to create a barricade or plug or roadblock to the traffic coming from or to Hinsdale” because “some Chesterfield residents reside close to [the road] and are bothered by the traffic.”

Please be advised that the foregoing case summary is based upon a Supreme Court slip opinion. Slip opinions are subject to change following motions for rehearing and/or motions for reconsideration. The Court may also modify the opinion without motion. The final version of the Court’s opinion is that which appears in the New Hampshire Reports.

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