Friday, October 21, 2011

Flood damaged real estate documents in Vermont

Earlier this week I read an article that described how real estate closings in much of Vermont have screeched to a halt because many of the state's land records were damaged in the flooding that followed Hurricane Irene back at the end of August.  Vermont is one of three states - I believe Connecticut and Rhode Island are the other two - in which land records are maintained at the municipal level.  To do a title search in Vermont, instead of going to a county-level registry of deeds, you must go to the local town hall where the land records are kept in the town clerk's vault along with marriage, birth and death records.

Vermont law requires these storage vaults to be fireproof but not water proof.  It appears that the law also does not require any type of microfilm or digital backup of the original paper records.  When the late August flooding hit, therefore, the land records in many towns became soaked, a condition that quickly would prove fatal to the continued existence of those records unless they were immediately freeze dried and professionally recovered.

To me, one of the main attractions of digitizing our records was that we could easily and affordably make multiple copies and store those copies in multiple places.  On top of that, we have since World War Two, at least, produced microfilm of all recorded documents with that film being stored offsite in a secure location.  No technology is perfect: microfilm can degrade over time.  And computer programs and storage methodology can change over time rendering otherwise intact digital images unusable.  Have you tried viewing material stored on a 5.25 inch floppy disk recently?

The Vermont situation is a valuable reminder of the importance of thorough disaster planning.  Hopefully, ours will never be tested like that.


Jeff Welch said...

The only comparable situation I can think of was the 1827 Barnstable County Court House fire, which destroyed all but one of the 93 record books. Any records from prior to 1827 had to be re-compiled from documents held by individuals and whatever information was available from Town Halls. This is one of the reasons Barnstable County has such a large proprtion of Registered Land. (Another reason was that by 1900, the Cape had been denuded of trees. It became very difficult to figure out figure out where the property lines were when many of the old descriptions had used trees as landmarks.)

There was also a fear in 2005 that a dam in Taunton was going to fail, which would have swept through the downtown and innundated the Registry of Deeds.

Dick said...

Thanks for sharing those stories about past problems with land records. Two famous instances nationally were in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The resulting fire destroyed all the land ownership records and litigation to redetermine boundaries went on forever.

The other instance was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. When I visited the Cook County Registry of Deeds in 2001, during a tour I learned that all documents that are to be recorded were first reviewed and copied by the Chicago Title Insurance Company which had an office in the basement. Baffled, I asked why that was so. I was told that during the 1871 fire, the official land records were on the verge of being destroyed and that Chicago Title Insurance secured a number of boats that were used to offload and save all the records. Either in gratitude or in payment for the deliverance of the records, the country entered into an agreement that allowed Chicago Title first crack at new documents in perpetuity. Whether this is true or an urban legend is not clear, but that's what the workers at the registry of deeds told me.