In a decision that helps cement the ongoing efforts of Island towns and conservation groups to protect the ancient ways that crisscross the Vineyard like so many strands of history, a superior court judge ruled yesterday that Rogers Path in West Tisbury is open for public use.

“The public has the right to use the entire length and width of the way,” wrote the Hon. C. Brian McDonald, an associate justice of the superior court.

Once a cart path that connected Middletown and Christiantown, Rogers Path also leads to a town cemetery, where some of the headstones date back to the Civil War. The path is about a mile long; half of it provides access to a handful of private homes, while the remainder is a grassy track through the woods. Part of the path is also sometimes called Burying Ground Road.

In November of 2001 the town signed a management agreement with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank to maintain the path. Two months later a group of neighbors who live along the path sued the town to block access by the public. The dispute was marked by an incident early on when one of the neighbors scooped up a land bank worker in the bucket of his tractor and police were called.

A trial was held in October of 2007 in Dukes County Superior Court, where many longtime Islanders testified about their use of the path over the years, which included horseback riding, flower gathering and regular access by town workers to the old cemetery for mowing and maintenance.

The case involved complicated legal issues relating to title, and in the end the judge found that the town had established what is termed prescriptive easement through continuous public use for more than 20 years. A key point in the case centered on the fact that from 1928 until the present, the town had appropriated money to take care of the cemetery, and the road that leads to it. The ruling also chronicles the rich history of the path. “What began as a cart way became a path, then a lane, then a road,” Judge McDonald wrote. The judge gave credit to the witnesses who testified and also to Rob McCarron, an Edgartown attorney who was the town’s title expert at trial.

Town and land bank leaders hailed the decision yesterday.

Land bank executive director James Lengyel said his organization underwrote 75 per cent of the town’s legal costs in the case. “The land bank felt so strongly about this, about the public’s rights in Rogers Path,” Mr. Lengyel said, adding: “Part of it was because the land bank wanted to protect the public’s rights and the path is an important connection between Priester’s Pond and Christiantown, but there is also a larger philosophical issue which is this: the public character of an ancient way doesn’t evaporate merely because someone has tried to block it off. Those public rights endure.”

Mr. Lengyel said the maintenance agreement for Rogers Path is not unique; the land bank has about a dozen agreements with various Island towns to take care of ancient ways, which it does at no cost to the town.

“This is a really important case for West Tisbury and the Island,” said town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport. “We have all these old roads which we call ancient ways, a number of which go back to the Revolutionary War times. The issue of public rights on these roads has been discussed and debated for a long time, and now a court has spoken about a specific road in West Tisbury . . . the facts here are partly compelling because of the cemetery where the gravestones go back to the turn of the 19th century.” He concluded:

“It’s important not to let these old roads fall into disuse and disrepair; if there are public rights it’s important that the rights be determined and protected. That’s what the town of West Tisbury did here, and good for them.”

The plaintiffs in the case included Robert and Tracy Smith, Scott Bermudes, Cynthia Cornwall, Mark and Kimberly Baumhofer, and Alex and Laura Alexander. They were represented by Brian M. Hurley, an attorney with Rackemann, Sawyer and Brewster in Boston, and Daniel J. Larkosh, an attorney from West Tisbury. Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached at press time yesterday.