Take a hike! Rivanna Trails Foundation detours path

There's a lesson to be learned from the dust-up over the Rivanna Trail: don't mess with property rights.

As reported in last week's cover story, "Trail Nix," the Rivanna Trails Foundation, whose nearly accomplished goal is marking and clearing a continuous 20-mile trail around the City of Charlottesville, failed to obtain permission from long-time Bland Circle resident Shirley Presley and her neighbors when it added the stretch of trail that starts near the VFW Lodge on River Road nearly seven years ago.

Though some neighbors welcome the trail across the Rivanna River flood-plain portions of their property, Presley says she now feels threatened by the hikers, bikers, and dog walkers– some of whom she claims are vandalizing her property and trespassing farther up on her land.

City land records indicate that Presley has lived on the property since 1970. But in late June, she erected a bulky blockade of brush, spray-painted it yellow, and added multiple No Trespassing signs. In doing so, she touched off the tempers of some outdoorsy types– many of whom had come to see the popular pathway as public domain.

Indeed, before the blockade had been up for two weeks, a hiker dismantled it in a fit of rage witnessed by a Hook staffer who arrived during the destruction.

"It's a dangerous situation," says Presley's attorney Frederick Payne, expressing outrage that "a so-called public interest group" would "encourage" trespassing.

The Foundation's failure to secure permission before placing that stretch of trail on its map was an "oversight," says Foundation board member and former president John Conover.

"We're concerned that she gets what she wants," says Conover, who dropped a letter by The Hook offices earlier this week.

"Ms. Presley has the right to her land," Conover's letter states. "We never claimed otherwise. If our map was misleading, we apologize in public as we have done in private."

And the solution to the dispute? At least for now it's not a hefty payment that could open the floodgates to other claims and result in the demise of the non-profit Foundation.

"We will maintain the continuous nature of the trail at the expense of leaving the waterway," Conover writes. "As soon as possible, we will open a detour through the City parkland bordering Meadowcreek, along Locust Avenue and River Road, and returning to the trail on the Rivanna by the VFW Lodge. For the next month or so, there will be no through trail. Sorry."

(Ironically, some of he land the detoured Trail will now traverse is owned by Stan Tatum, the developer who enraged the neighborhood association three years ago with a short-lived plan to build on City park land.)

So is Presley satisfied? Her lawyer, Payne, says he can't respond to the letter since he hasn't yet been contacted directly by Conover or the Foundation.

"We're gathering information," says Payne. "We're not in a position to say what Mrs. Presley will do long-term."

To that end, he says Presley is having her property resurveyed so that she can be sure exactly where her land begins and ends.

Payne says he'd like to remind people that anyone who walks on that trail is "committing a crime." And he hopes the Foundation will do everything in its power to undo the problems it has caused. "You disseminated the misinformation," he says of the Foundation, "you can disseminate the correct information."

Whether the steps the Foundation has taken and those it plans to take are enough to satisfy Presley long term remains to be seen.

For those considering vigilante justice against Presley or any other property owners who might object to the trail, Conover's letter leaves no doubt about where the Foundation stands on the issue: "Respect the trail. Respect the owners. If you have questions, please call us at 923-9022."

But Conover also makes it clear he'd love to bring the trail off the asphalt and return it to the banks of the Rivanna River. "If she changes her mind," he says of Presley, "we'll put it back."


Rivanna Trails Foundation board member John Conover.