The Lease Lands of Cambridge

Suppose you are researching the chain of title for land you own in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, and you find this language in an old deed:

“All of the above described and herein conveyed land is lease-land, subject to an annual rental to the Town of Cambridge.”

What does it mean? Should you care?

Yes, you should care. A title insurance company may consider this language to be a title defect, and as a result you may not be able to sell your property or borrow money using the property as collateral.

Lease lands are an “unusual Vermont institution” (quoting the Vermont Supreme Court). They were created when towns were chartered in the 1700s. Lease lands were public lands that were leased out for private use. The lease was perpetual. The lease could be traded, but the lessee did not own the land. The lessee paid an annual rent that was earmarked for public uses related to church and school. The purpose of lease lands was to create self-sustaining towns with support for church and school. Approximately 5% of the area of most Vermont towns was designated as lease land.

Lease land is sometimes called glebe land, but the two terms are not strictly synonymous. Glebe land is one category of lease land.

Over time people forgot about lease lands, in part because the annual rents were never increased and they became a pittance in today’s dollars. But the topic is relevant today because of the concerns of title insurance companies and banks mentioned above, and also because of a new (2018) state law discussed below.

How did lease lands come to my attention? The Town of Cambridge, where I am on the selectboard, was recently asked to quitclaim its interest in a parcel of lease land where the chain of title included old deeds with the language quoted above. Like most people, I had never heard of lease land. So I started researching it, together with Joel Page, president of the Cambridge Historical Society.

This is a fascinating subject! Joel and I are indebted to many people for helping with our research, and we did a presentation about what we learned:

The Lease Lands of Cambridge (PDF, 7 MB)

In our research, we learned about a recent (2018) state law that directly affects lease lands. Act 152 says that towns may take affirmative action to retain their ownership interest in lease lands, but if they do not do so prior to January 1, 2020, then fee simple title to the land will vest in the current lessee. What should the town of Cambridge do about its lease lands before the end of 2019? That question is considered in our presentation.

Vermont lease lands originated with Benning Wentworth (pictured), the colonial governor of New Hampshire for 25 years from 1741 to 1766. That is, before the American Revolution and prior to Vermont becoming an independent state. The presentation at the link above explains further.

Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain.

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