Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pro Bono Legal Service Opportunity: The Great Eastern Trail Project


Appalachian School of Law Students 
Help Build the Great Eastern Trail

Students at the Appalachian School of Law organized to help with the title work associated with building the Great Eastern Trail Project. In August of 2007, the trail groups involved in the effort incorporated as the Great Eastern Trail Association and held an organizational meeting in Virginia in November of 2007.

Project organizers intend to establish an organizational structure that will encompass the entire length of the trail and to begin filling in the gaps in the trail.

About the GET Project

The Great Eastern Trail (GET) Association, working with American Hiking Society and local trail partners, is creating America's newest long-distance hiking trail. 

This path runs for 1800 miles across nine states.  It runs roughly parallel to the Appalachian Trail, but follows the ridges on the Western side of the Appalachian Mountains.  Its path takes it close to Buchanan County and the law school. 


The Great Eastern Trail provides a premier hiking experience on a series of existing trails that are being linked to each other from Alabama to the Finger Lakes Trail in New York.

Benton MacKaye’s original vision for an Appalachian Trail (AT) in the 1920's showed a network of “braided” trails running the length of the Appalachian Mountains. In 2000, Lloyd MacAskill, of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, published an article in the Appalachian Trailway News calling attention to the existing trails to the west of the AT and saying, “Don’t look now, but parts are already in place."

Existing volunteer trail clubs, augmented -- where necessary -- by new volunteer groups, provide the work needed to complete the trial.  They work closely with governmental entities, but the GET Association continues to emphasize volunteerism.

GET will primarily host hikers. Parts of existing trails -- where local public land managers welcome non-motorized riding activities -- will host equestrians and mountain bikes. The Trail, however, will not host motorized vehicles. Organizers intend to avoid roads entirely.


ASL Student Volunteerism

Students of the Appalachian School of Law assisted the GET Trail Project by ascertaining the ownership of real estate in Buchanan County that would become part of the trail.  After students accurately determined the current owners of the various estates in a piece of land, GET could then secure rights of way and easements needed to place the trail segments on these properties.

In Buchanan County, VA -- as with many other mineral rich areas -- the estates in a majority of the lands are divided by a mineral severance. Therefore, any given piece of land will have both a surface owner and a separate mineral owner. Further, other interested parties may have obtained a right of way, thus granting them access to certain portions or to all of the property in question.

The Title Search Process

This project requires students to learn and use title search skills applicable in many legal contexts -- real estate law, estate planning, and natural resource law. 

In determining property ownership, students reviewed records from at least three sources:  the offices of the Buchanan County Treasurer, the Circuit Clerk, and the Commissioner of Revenue.

Typically, the student starts with the records of the County Treasurer’s Office. Tax records usually reveal ownership of a piece of property.

Next, the student talks with the staff of the Circuit Clerk's Office. The Circuit Court and its clerks maintain real estate documents, including deeds, leases, or deeds of trust. Using the Grantor-Grantee indexing system -- used for collecting and sharing records of the ownership of real estate -- a student searches the Grantee index. For deeds issued from 1976 to present, public computers in the deed room catalog these records. For older deeds, a student resorts to the musty old books kept in this office. In the case of a devise by will or the death of an owner without a will, a student researches the Will Index. A will or list of heirs will stand as the conveying document. In that case, the student locates the previous deed to the decedent as a reference for the current owners.

Next, the student determines who has any other rights in or on the property. Typically, students must identify the mineral rights owners and leasehold owners in this coal-rich part of the United States.

Finally, the Commissioner of Revenue’s Office -- located on the first floor of the Buchanan County Courthouse -- keeps track of all the real estate dealings and personal property in the county.  It sends this information to the Treasurer’s Office for taxing purposes. Personnel in this office "know practically where everything is and certainly who should be paying taxes on what." In addition, they will have helpful information about tax exempt entities owning property, like a church and government agency, which does not show up in tax record searches.

If anyone knows the status of this local project, or the faculty members serving as advisors, please let me know.

Other Pro Bono Legal Service 
Opportunities at ASL

The Appalachian School of Law offers three pro bono service programs. Students can also participate in the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, profiled here, or a tax form preparation program called VITA, profiled
here.

Postscript

Doug Adkins, an ASL alumnus and current Director of our Writing Center provided this update:
The Great Eastern Trail project is still in the purview of Buchanan County. However, currently the county has shifted the project to include an All-Terrain Vehicle trail system. The reason for this is the economic impact that it may have on the community. The officials of the county believe that an ATV trail would be a bigger draw for tourism. The student aspect is still the same, and I'm currently working with several ASL students. They assist not only in the title research, but legal research as well.

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