NEWS- Bridge building: Is city's property grab illegal?

The murky legal status of a street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood has sparked another brouhaha. In March, Louis Schultz appeared before Charlottesville City Council to demand the removal of a bridge on the street. He also asks that the city apologize for continuing to treat both the bridge and the Steephill Street– which connects Market and Chesapeake Streets– as public property and that the city investigate the practices of one of its own departments.

City Attorney Craig Brown is pretty frank about whether Steephill Street is private or public property. "I don't know," he says. "It seems there are some inconsistencies."

Schultz would surely agree with that. He believes that he owns part of Steephill Street, and he notes that city indicates as much with "private" signs at either end. And yet the continued use of taxpayer funds to fix a "private" road raises a question: Is Charlottesville now in the business of repairing private property?

"No," says Brown. "We have always treated [Steephill] as an unaccepted right of way." That means the city does not own it. Yet city workers replaced a bridge there in 2001, and again in 2005. "An elderly couple needs access," explains Brown.

"We approached this as a safety and accessibility issue," says city spokesperson Ric Barrick. "Weather and other factors had created the need for the bridge work, and since we had completed work in that specific area in previous years, the city viewed it as a public responsibility."

Barrick says that in a July 17, 2006, letter to Brown, Schultz requested that the bridge be repaired.

"My concern was legal liability," explains Schultz, who worries that if a car goes off the bridge, he could get sued. "I made it pretty clear," he says. "The emphasis of that letter was it should be closed."

Hal Bonney and Lee Willis are the property owners who live on Steephill and use the bridge to get to their house.

"We have two positions you can quote," says Willis. "One, we need to get out of our house. Two, we don't want to cause strife with our neighbor."

Questions the city did not answer include how much the city has spent to maintain the bridge on Steephill, and whether the Bonneys were ever asked to pay for the access they want on Steephill Street.

For Schultz, the city's alleged inconsistency has been frustrating. "Anytime I want something done, they say it's private property," he says. "Anytime it's something the city wants to do, it's public. I don't know why the city is in the business of building driveways."

The bridge at Steephill is not Schultz's first run-in with the city. In 2001, he was cited for failing to mow his grass, growth he claimed was environmentally correct "native plants" forming a riparian buffer. In 2003, the city objected to his compost and brush piles.

But it was what happened in 2004 that presaged the latest dispute. After the Bonneys hired pavers to asphalt a portion of Steephill between the bridge and Market Street, Schultz was arrested for sitting down in front of the paving equipment on what could arguably be considered his own private property.

Indeed, all charges– unlawful assembly, disturbing the peace, and one added in the days following the incident: blocking free passage– were later dropped. But Schultz says he's still "irate" about the arrest.

He contends that when Charlottesville began paving the bridge, it essentially seized his property without going through the condemnation procedure specified in the Code of Virginia.

"We do acknowledge that our communication with some property owners could have been better, but the project needed to be completed to ensure safe and available travel for several homeowners in that immediate area," says city spokesman Barrick.

Louis Schultz was arrested in 2004 when his neighbors paved a portion of Steephill Street that Schultz says he owns.