“Two days later, a sheriff shows up at our doors,” said Coggeshall, who has since spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to prove that he and his companions were not trespassing on this Alleghany County waterway.
His case has spawned a lawsuit that pits private property rights against public access in a state where recreational fishing brings in more than a billion dollars a year.
What’s at stake is how Virginia’s rivers are used. Can anglers wade in to fish, or kayakers to take photographs, or hunters to retrieve the ducks they have shot — even if they’re on someone’s property? Or does everyone need explicit permission from landowners to stand on the bottom of the river?
“We’re watching it with concern,” said Gary Martel, deputy director for wildlife resources at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “It’s a really important case.”
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From his kayak, Coggeshall pointed with his paddle at a large house nestled between river and cliffs.
It was here, on this river near the West Virginia state line, that his battle began two years ago. He said he had done research, consulted state fishing maps and was confident that he had the right to wade-fish, even though he had been warned in the past that he was trespassing when he stood on the riverbed.
So he was furious when he, his brother-in-law Charles Crawford and a friend were charged with criminal trespassing. The charge was later dismissed, but the homeowner and the owner of North South Development brought a civil suit seeking $10,000 in damages.
The landowners say they own the river bottom based on historical grants dating to King George II in the 18th century — and a judge has agreed that they own prima facie title to the land, putting the burden on the defendants to prove otherwise if the case goes to trial later this year.
In Virginia, the rivers, bays, creeks, ocean shores and their bottomlands are owned by the state and are legally presumed to be public lands unless they are proven to be subject to a special grant that predates commonwealth law.
No one knows how many of these old titles, often known as king’s or crown or commonwealth grants, exist, said game and fisheries official Ryan Brown.
But conflicts over public access have been increasing in recent years, not only in Virginia but on rivers across the country, lawyers, landowners and fly-fishing guides agreed.
“If we don’t fight this case and win, the public is going to get locked out of more and more resources,” said Coggeshall, a Charlottesville resident who owns a business that helps people with learning disabilities. “We are telling everyone: This could happen to a river near you.”