River law update: Charlottesville angler gets a day in court
Back in January, the Hook profiled local angler Dargan Coggeshall, a Charlottesville business owner and long-time fly-fisherman, who was being sued for fishing in the Jackson River in Alleghany County. Now he's had a day in court.
In 2010, nearby property owners took issue with Coggeshall and his brother-in-law for wading in the river in front of their homes, claiming the riverbed along the The River's Edge development was private property, granted via a long chain of documents including one issued by the King of England in 1743. The property owners had the two waders arrested for trespassing. While an Alleghany District Court judge dismissed the criminal case, the owners and their developer moved forward with a civil lawsuit seeking $10,000 in damages.
Coggeshall, however, would fight back, spending $50,000 of his own money for legal aid and creating the Virginia Rivers Defense Fund, a non-profit to defend himself and other river users against what he views as over-reach by the folks at The River's Edge.
The website for The River's Edge– where a weekend cottage can cost over half a million dollars– depicts a fly-fisherman in action and promises both "the finest wild trout-fishing on the East Coast" and "the exclusive benefit of private river frontage." But as Coggeshall sees it, this is a fight to preserve the rights of all fisherman and other river users to freely access the state's waterways.
On May 4, he and his defense team got a chance to argue their case. Alleghany Circuit Court Judge Malfourd Trumbo heard arguments for and against a motion brought by the property owners that would declare them legal owners of the river bottom. While a ruling wasn't immediately handed down, Coggeshall was encouraged by Trumbo's knowledge of the issues and line of questioning.
For instance, according to Coggeshall, Trumbo recognized that the Crown Grant made no references to a transfer of the actual riverbed, and that the subsequent Commonwealth Grant, made in 1785, referred to parcels on either side of the river, but not the river bottom between them. Trumbo also took the wind out of the property owners' argument that they had rights to the land because they paid taxes on it.
A phone call to the Alleghany County assessor's office reveals that riverside property owners are taxed on river-bottom land extending about half-way across the river.
"The judge opined that the paying of taxes on land has nothing to do with determination of rightful ownership," Coggeshall writes on his blog, "and advised the Plaintiffs that this argument would not have much sway."
"Pretty damning to the bad guys," Coggeshall tells the Hook.
The lawyer for the property owners, Roanoke attorney James Jennings, declined to comment on the case because the judge's ruling is still pending. However, Jennings has previously made it clear that it's a case of Coggeshall and his brother-in-law wading on private property.
"This is not a fishing case. This is a trespassing case," he has told the Hook. "These men were walking on the river bottom, and my clients own the river bottom."
Coggeshall says he was disappointed that the judge, the two legal teams, and a court reporter were the only ones attending the hearing in Covington.
"It's unfortunate, considering the magnitude of the potential impact this case will have on the state’s public recreational and natural resources," says Coggeshall, "that no one showed up to hear the arguments in person."
Coggeshall hopes there's a better crowd at the trial this fall. A ruling by Trumbo on the May 4 motion is expected in about a month.