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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Public water rights threatened by inaction

 

Imagine taking a day off work to hit a local public waterway such as the Rappahannock River to wet a line and possibly catch some fish for supper. The Rappahannock River is described on the VDGIF website, “The tidal Rappahannock offers an array of species for the freshwater angler to enjoy, including blue catfish, largemouth bass, and migratory anadromous species such as American shad, hickory shad, river herring (alewife and blueback herring), and striped bass.”

It is a fine river to fish. While out on the river you see a tributary that you had never fished before that is plenty big enough to get your small boat into and still leave plenty of room for casting on both sides of the boat. You know that all navigable water in the state is public water but to your surprise you see POSTED signs and NO TRESPASSING signs along the bank and NO FISHING signs. It appears that someone is trying to keep people from enjoying the public waterway. Is this a bad dream that you need to wake up from? 

Depending on what happens in a current case on the Jackson River to our west it may be reality. In June 2010, an angler named Dargan Coggeshall was fishing with his brother-in-law on the Jackson River and was told to leave the section of the river where they were fishing which happened to be near River’s Edge—a development of expensive home lots with breathtaking views of the river. River’s Edge is owned by Matt Sponaugle who had sold one of those lots Dr. John Feldenzer, both of whom now are suing the anglers jointly. Sponaugle pointed to the “NO TRESPASSING” signs that were on both sides of the river when declaring the anglers unwelcome. The anglers pointed out that VDGIF listed the waterway as public water. The dispute began. 

A sheriff’s deputy from Alleghany County was summoned. He checked the anglers licenses and refused to arrest them because VDGIF did state the water was public. Sponaugle took the case to criminal court but the case was dropped. The court did find the ownership of the river in dispute though and both Feldenzer and Sponaugle are suing the anglers in civil court for trespassing. 

Why? Apparently there may be a Crown Grant involved. 

In summary, a Crown Grant is a deed given by the king of England many years ago that includes the river bottom. Regardless of who owns the river bottom, up to this point VDGIF (and by proxy the state of Virginia) advertised the river as public water. The issue we have here is not who owns the river bottom at this point, but the fact that it was declared public and a license was sold to use the river to the public. VDGIF has posted signs declaring the fishing creel limits etc… along the river in that very section.  The Jackson River, to include that section of the river, is listed in the fishing regulations as public water and on the VDGIF website as well. The anglers knew this and thought that if the state agency had listed it as public water then they could fish it without being harassed. Unfortunately that was not the case. VDGIF had even told Sponaugle via a letter that his signs had no legal standing and might be intimidating to anglers. This was done in 2009 a full year prior to the angler’s troubles beginning. 

The sad thing is that the state, although it publicly published the river as public fishing waters, is doing nothing to assist the anglers. The attorney general’s office simply seems to shrug and was quoted in an article by Beau Beasley, author of Fly Fishing Virginia, and investigative outdoor writer, as saying, “This is a civil trespassing case between private parties, the Commonwealth of Virginia generally does not intervene in disputes between private parties.”  

Beasley, who directed a personal letter to the board of VDGIF, had this to say about the issue:  “I don’t see how the state of Virginia can sell a license to sportsmen, give them a map they created, encourage them to use them and then cut them loose if they get in trouble for doing so”. 

Beasley went on to say “I wonder if anyone in state government has thought of how this will affect our tourism business as it relates to fishing in this state?”

I know if I had consulted regulations published by VDGIF and they currently listed a water that I wanted to fish as a good fishing area I would assume I could fish it. I would also expect the state government to support me by enforcing any attempts to privatize public water or harass me as I legally fished. Harassing an angler or hunter who is legally fishing or hunting is a violation of state law. 

It is a sad day when the state government won’t even tell the landowners to back off or even defend the anglers whom they sold a fishing license to use on waters listed in their state publication as public water. If the water is not public water, then the agency needs to remove it from the publication.  

The anglers have already racked up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees doing what the state should be doing. If they lose this case it has implications for all citizens as any landowner could start POSTING public water and many public waters could be closed off to our use. 

Also consider writing the attorney general’s office and ask that they do something to resolve this issue before it really does become a nightmare. This conflict is about the state supplying a license to enjoy waters they claim are public and then letting the same people who spent money in good faith on a license to enjoy that water, hang in civil court. 

 

Mark Fike with info from Beau Beasley

 

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