Trail nix: Rivanna neighbor just says no to hikers
When landscape designer Jon Dreher went walking on the Rivanna Trail with his dog, Chester, on June 20, he expected a leisurely stroll through the woods. What he got instead was a confrontation– and a case study in community amenities vs. the property rights of an angry citizen.
About a half-mile from the trailhead near the VFW Lodge on River Road, Dreher came upon a woman and a man constructing a barrier– in the middle of the popular pathway.
Where he had freely strolled so many times before, Dreher encountered the spectacle of a three-foot-tall pile of yellow-spray-painted brush adorned with multiple "No Trespassing" signs.
The woman lugging the logs stayed mum, but the man reportedly piped up, "Somebody bought this property, and they don't want anyone walking on it." Faced with this pronouncement, Dreher turned around and left.
Reflecting on his experience, Dreher sighs, "It's so mean-spirited and not civic-minded."
The concept behind the Rivanna Trail, which recently received a National Recreation Trail designation from the Department of the Interior, is nothing if not civic-minded. The nonprofit Rivanna Trails Foundation has worked for the past eight years or so to connect existing paths and to blaze new ones to create a 20-mile continuous trail around Charlottesville. Every day, dozens– perhaps hundreds– of nature-lovers take to the trails.
But at least one trail neighbor doesn't take kindly to the arrangement. In fact, as any civics teacher can attest, property rights– like yellow spray-painted brush– are not to be lightly trampled.
The barrier is the work of Bland Circle resident Shirley Presley. She wants to reclaim the lower reaches of her property from the hikers, bikers, and dog walkers who cross it daily.
Will the Foundation have to revise its maps and signs?
A street of modest but well-manicured homes, Bland Circle has its charms. A compact cul-de-sac near the northern terminus of prestigious Locust Avenue, the short street is located high on a bluff above the junction of Meadow Creek and the Rivanna River.
The back yards are deep, steep, and heavily wooded, and the houses– nearly 200 feet above the Trail– are all but invisible to hikers walking along the river. Perhaps such protection explains why some people in the neighborhood have no objection to the narrow swath of land across the back edge of their land being accessible to the public.
Shirley Presley's Bland Circle house, as seen from the trail.
In response to a Hook reporter's questions, Presley would give only the name of her attorney, Frederick Payne, through the muffling glass of her front storm door. She did, however, nod when asked if there had been problems with trail-users vandalizing her land.
Payne confirms that Presley's property has been vandalized, citing litter left behind by people using Presley's back yard as a campsite.
"It's a very dangerous situation," says Payne. He says the "No Trespassing" signs have been stolen. As Presley stood on the Trail discussing her rights with a police officer, she was verbally assaulted by a female bicyclist who had to be ordered off the property by the cop.
"What would have happened if the police officer hadn't been there?" asks Payne. The police officer could not be reached for comment.
By Friday night, June 28, the barrier had been dismantled. A Hook staffer happened past the scene as an infuriated woman was finishing the task of destroying the yellow assemblage.
"I walked by this thing, and it just steamed me," said the perpetrator. Learning that the barricade had been put up by a property owner, the woman exploded in fury.
"I'm from California, and I believe in freedom," said the woman. "No one has the right to do this."
But any legal scholar will point out that Presley has every right to do what she's doing.
"It's a shame that a woman who has owned this property for decades should have to call a lawyer and be afraid to walk on her own property," Payne says.
Just two houses down from Presley on Bland Circle, John Potter is home with his wife and two sons. A veteran of neighborhood political skirmishes, Potter successfully kept a developer from building on park land in a proposed land-swap three years ago.
Bland Circle resident John Potter, with son Max, is a Rivanna Trail proponent.
Besides allowing the Trail on his own property, Potter considers himself a big Trail proponent who finds his neighbor's complaints exaggerated.
"There have been a few minor incidents," Potter says, mentioning some graffiti on trees and some trash, but nothing that he feels would warrant such extreme action. Noise, he says, is not an issue, and he has had no instances of people trespassing on his property.
Ironically, since Presley put up the No Trespassing warnings, Potter and his wife have seen several people climbing the overgrown embankment toward the houses on Bland Circle to bypass the intimidating signs.
Potter confirms that the Rivanna Trail Foundation never requested permission from Bland Circle residents to use their land for the Trail, but he considers it a forgivable oversight.
"They were new at the game," he says.
Moreover, Potter says, the trail in this location predates the Foundation's work. The Foundation merely placed formal markers on this section of the trail that had been used for years by hikers and fishermen to navigate the banks of the Rivanna, and placed it on its maps six or seven years ago.
News of the feud has reached the highest levels of City and Trail authorities. In mid-June, neighbors got together with City Councilors, police, and members of the Foundation board to try to hammer out a compromise. Potter says no agreement has been reached.
Potter fears that Presley will build some sort of huge, permanent barricade stretching from her yard all the way down to the water and attracting hostility from previously peaceful Trail walkers.
Fred Payne, Presley's attorney, says he's disgusted that a "so-called public interest group" has encouraged people to trespass on private property.
Former Foundation president and current board member John Conover says that his organization's failure to procure written permission from property owners along that stretch of the Trail was "just an oversight" resulting from his group's inexperience at the time.
"Were we ignorant?" asks Conover. "Yes. Have we gotten better? Yes."
Rivanna Trails Foundation's John Conover
Conover says the Foundation now makes sure it gets a written agreement from every individual whose property the trail crosses. However, he points out that the agreements can be revoked by the property owner for any reason at any time.
The form allows the Foundation to report individuals who are trespassing or otherwise damaging property, something usually only possible by the property owners themselves. In addition, the form allows the Foundation to extend $1 million in liability insurance to every property owner who grants the temporary easement.
The Foundation conducts regular clean-ups along the Trail. These events frequently draw photographers who capture images of smiling but sweating children keeping a community resource in order, and Conover says there have been very few reported problems.
"We've been surprised at how civic-minded Trail users have been," he explains. "They're more likely to pick up trash than to leave it."
As for the situation with Presley, Conover says, "We're concerned that she gets what she wants." He says a monetary exchange "is always a possible solution," though he adds that the Foundation, a non-profit funded by donations, is not "a deep pocket" organization.
Conover acknowledges that paying one property owner could open the floodgates, but he says that's a chance the Foundation may have to take.