Access Denied: Landowners Win Jackson River Case

13 Mar 13
Access Denied: Landowners Win Jackson River Case

Signs like this now indicated private property along the Jackson River. Previously the water was advertised as public by VDGIF.

PrintLandowners along Virginia’s famed Jackson River have won a lawsuit against an angler from Charlottesville who entered the river from a public access spot and floated downriver.

Landowners claim to hold a Crown Grant to the property in question. Such grants, issued by the King of England to loyal subjects in the colonies, convey ownership of land and, in some cases, certain waterways that traverse that land. An 1802 statute passed by the Virginia legislature states that all lands under water not otherwise conveyed by deed or special grant are to be held essentially in trust for the use and enjoyment of the Commonwealth’s citizens. The plaintiffs in North South Development v. Crawford believe that because they hold a Crown Grant to the disputed stretch of the Jackson River—a grant older than the 1802 statute—that property is privately owned.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, appears to have assumed otherwise. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) made maps to the area available to the public on its website and at kiosks along public access points on the river. In 2009 the VDGIF also sent the landowners a letter informing them that their no-trespassing signs would have no influence on the public’s use of the river.

The angler in question entered the river at a public access point, possessed a valid Virginia fishing license, and floated downstream to the disputed section in a kayak. He didn’t venture out of the river onto its bank. The landowners asked the angler to leave and he refused to do so. After he was charged with trespassing, VDGIF officials informed him that they had no statutory authority to defend him in court. When he turned to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office for legal help, he was again rebuffed. According to Brian Gottstein, director of communications, “This is a civil trespassing case between private parties, and the commonwealth generally doesn’t intervene in disputes between private parties.” Having followed the law to its letter, the angler was on his own in court.

In the end, the court decided that the riparian landowners had a better claim to the disputed river bottom than did the angler. In light of the case, the VDGIF has changed signs along the Jackson River to indicate that this section of the river is off-limits to the public. In the end, the angler agreed not to return, and because he essentially represented the public, anyone else who ventures into that part of the river uninvited can now be criminally charged with trespassing.

Why does this case matter to Virginia’s outdoor enthusiasts? Nearly all of the commonwealth—including its rivers—was conveyed before the 1802 statute. It is now clear that the state will not defend the public’s use of what was thought by all for years to be public property.

The defendant in North South Development v. Crawford is soliciting funds from concerned citizens to help pay his legal bills, which have exceeded $100,000. (virginiariversdefensefund.org).

5 Comments

  • How much is a “private” trout stream worth? Obviously North South Development places a high value on this exclusivity. Does Alleghany County collect taxes for these properties based on the value of outright ownership of the river, the river bottom, and the fish? Or are the assessments simply based on similar properties nearby without their own “private” trout stream?

    By the way, the Army Corps of Engineers designated the Jackson a navigable river in 1978, and subsequent litigation by property owners to overturn this ruling were unsuccessful. Hence, landowners do not have a say in who can navigate such waters.

    Jon Cox   22 Mar 13, 11:57 am

  • I have a river going through my property and there is no provision to deduct the waterway area from my taxes, so I DO pay taxes on it. Hence I should be able to say who can traverse on it.

    Joel FUnk   21 Mar 13, 8:39 am

  • If the river is private property, the land owner should pay off property taxes on it, including back taxes back to 1802

    Peter Calvert   20 Mar 13, 9:04 am

  • Tom, I think you may be missing the point. If citizens of the state do not require that government officials layout where citizens can and cannot go before there is an issue, problems like this will continue to occur. The Virginia legislature needs to act to clarify its positions. Perhaps some land owners may indeed have a valid claim, My problem with this issue is the state is using anglers and other river users as legal guinea pigs to determine riparian boundary lines. The angler relied on a map produced by the state to make sure he wasn’t trespassing. The scandal if there is any, is the state did not make an attempt to defend property it claimed to own and advertised as public.. . .

    Beau Beasley   18 Mar 13, 1:44 pm

  • There you go! The “commonwealth” is actually a misnomer…why even call yourselves that? Lets just make everything private and turn it into a true hellhole of paying for every possible experience…lets do it for the children just because of some outdated 1700′s nonsense.

    Thomas Todd   13 Mar 13, 1:23 pm

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