Rock crawling is pretty literally that, only you use a vehicle to do so. Heather Packard drives over a really big rock.
No, this isn't an aerial view. Heather Packard descends a rock.
photo by chris packard
When we think conservation easement, we think rural land and gracious farms, forever protected from subdividing, with the quiet broken only by the moo of cows. The roar of four-wheel drive vehicles climbing near-vertical terrain? Not so much.
It turns out property owners who put their acreage under easement can four-wheel to their hearts content, say both Albemarle County zoning, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds 650,000 acres under easement in the Commonwealth.
It's opening those protected tracts to commercial rock crawling that could be a problem, and a group that claims nonprofit status has been cited for a zoning violation on 86 acres of mountain-bumping land between between Crozet and White Hall.
The land belongs to Joseph T. Henley, III, and it's under a conservation easement jointly held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Albemarle Public Recreational Facilities Authority.
The land also has been used for rock crawling for more than 10 years, according to tenant Chris Packard, who's a member of Rock Crawlers for the Preservation of Future Access, which holds events to support Wounded Warriors, Toys for Tots, and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
A neighbor's complaint about rock crawling events had the joint-easement holders scouring the deed to see exactly what's allowed, and surprisingly, both have ruled that the 10 or 12 events the club has a year are allowed under the easement.
"We hold over 3,600 easement properties," says Brian Fuller, the assistant director of stewardship with Virginia Outdoors Foundation, "and each deed is unique."
The deed for 5950 Bearwood Road permits de minimis recreational activity, which means minimal and low impact, explains Fuller. "If commercial recreation is not the main use of the property– it's a beef cattle farm– and it happens 10 or 12 times a year for two days, that's not the primary use," he says, giving rock crawling an okay from VOF.
The other easement holder, the Albemarle Public Recreational Facility Authority, met April 11, and voted that rock crawling was not a violation, but expressed some concerns about impact on water quality and habitat, and reserved the right to revisit the matter. "They didn't find it was a permitted use," clarifies senior county planner Scott Clark. "They found it wasn't a violation."
That leaves the March 26 zoning violation issued by Albemarle, which rules that "off-road events open to the public/and or members" are not a permitted use by-right.
Chris Packard says his nonprofit club is being unfairly targeted. "Cub Scouts can get together on private property," he points out. "It's not like we're running a business."
Packard moved to Bearwood Road specifically for the rock crawling after attending a Jeep rally at Oak Ridge in Nelson County and becoming enamored with the extreme off-road sport. "I loved it," he says. "Crozet is a really nice place the way the land is laid out with all the rock outcrops," he says.
"There's no mud involved," he stresses. "It's very clean. It's not a redneck sport. A lot of the participants are professionals," he adds.
Packard disputes that the Bearwood Road rock crawling is a commercial activity. The $25 a day/$40 weekend charge is an administrative fee, he says, to pay for maintaining gravel on the road or to support other club activities, such as picking up trash in George Washington National Forest.
"Our people do not throw beer cans," Packard responds to a complaint about the weekenders. "They do not litter. They're very responsible people."
"I think it would be eligible for a special-use permit," says Albemarle zoning administrator Amelia McCulley. "When I talked to them onsite, they felt reluctant to apply and wanted to know what they can do by-right."
The expense of a special use permit– Packard cites $2,500– is an obstacle for the nonprofit, he says. Instead, the Rock Crawlers for the Preservation of Future Access have hired attorney Valerie Long, who declined to comment at this time.
Packard says he can't find anything in county zoning that prohibits nonprofit clubs from getting together with fewer than 100 people.
"We want to be in compliance," he says. "We want to continue the sport." The Rock Crawler charter spells out the group's respect for the environment, he notes.
Says Packard, "We want to do what we've been doing on private property, one mile away from anyone else, and we're not doing ecological damage."
Rock Crawlers' attorney, Long, and zoning administrator, Amelia McCulley, are meeting April 23 as the Hook goes to press.