WESTFORD -- Lying off the beaten path can work to a town's advantage -- especially when some of those paths are hundreds of years old.

The Selectboard appointed six residents Thursday to a newly formed committee charged with tracking down every town-owned highway, visible or otherwise.

Earlier this month, the town received a state grant of $5,000 to support the research, which is part of a broader effort to finalize the ownership of rights of way throughout Vermont.

Towns have until February 2009 to map their findings.

Westford has a head start.

In the early 1990s, the state Agency of Transportation gathered all the deeds, some of them centuries old, that documented legitimate highways.

"We did get pretty lucky," said Westford Planning Coordinator Melissa Manka on Friday. "We know most of our old roads around here, but we still need to trace their history. A hundred years from now people will want to know where they went and how they changed hands."

Each transaction needs to be double-checked for accuracy.

Landowners as well as historians have warmed to the project. Rights of way, even long-disused paths, hold potential. Towns can resurrect them as recreational trails or pave them for ambitious expansion projects.

Once the legitimacy of a road is established (towns relinquished ownership of many old roads), landowners can establish routes of access to otherwise land-locked properties -- or work to secure the closure of once-legal routes through their backyards.

For now, the research stage of the ancient roads takes a back seat to scholarship. Volunteers from the conservation commission and historical society have laid the groundwork.

"We've been working to get a few of our legal trails on our highway map for the past year and a half," Manka said. "It was a first step -- and it showed us that we really hadn't looked at the maps for quite some time. Now we've got to get on to the nitty-gritty. We're really going to dig into it. "

The grant, she said, will fund training for the committee, and maybe the services of a property-savvy attorney or surveyor.

Local amateurs and old-timers have already pitched in. Some, Manka said, hold memories from the middle of the last century: faint traces of what might have been roads.

Fortunately for the ancient roads committee, oral history and good record keeping will make its job easier than detective work in more heavily developed towns.

"We have about 2,100 people living here," Manka said. "We're the little forgotten town of Chittenden County."

Except for its roads.
Contact Joel Banner Baird at 660-1843 or joelbaird@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com