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Fishermen lose court fight for access to Va. river

Wednesday - 10/10/2012, 5:42pm  ET

By LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Two fishermen accused of trespassing in Alleghany County have been barred from wading on a contested section of the Jackson River after a judge ruled that 18th-century grants from the English crown and the commonwealth of Virginia give private landowners control of the riverbed.

Alleghany County Circuit Judge Malfourd "Bo" Trumbo signed an order late Tuesday prohibiting Dargan Coggeshall and Charles Crawford from wading a stretch of the Jackson through The River's Edge neighborhood. The community's developer and two residents sued the fishermen after they ignored warnings that they were trespassing on private property in 2010.

Trumbo ruled in June that a document search stretching back to a 1743 grant by King George II verified that the property owners control the streambed, and Coggeshall and Crawford were unable to produce "superior title" _ just a general claim that the state owns the river bottom. The order barring the defendants from walking the streambed ends the case.

Coggeshall said in an interview Wednesday that he is giving up the court fight, but will now focus on persuading the General Assembly to strengthen public access to the state's waterways. He said a legal defense fund he established to fight the charges for the benefit of all Virginia sportsmen has raised less than half the $140,000 he has run up in legal bills.

The defendants, who said state game officials assured them the riverbed was public property, unsuccessfully tried to force Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's office into court to defend the state's ownership. The attorney general declined, saying it had no business intervening in a private trespassing lawsuit.

"The reluctance of the commonwealth to enter our case has put us in a precarious financial position," Coggeshall said. "We're out of resources."

While the judge ruled that the fishermen could not trump the property owners' title claim, Coggeshall said the issue of whether the landowners or the state own the river bottom has not been decided. He said ownership must be clarified for the good of all recreational users of state waterways.

"Ultimately, the ambiguity has to be cleared up by the General Assembly, not by circuit court judges in small courtrooms in the state," Coggeshall said.

The attorney for North South Development, the company that filed the lawsuit, disputed the need for a legislative fix.

"There's nothing they can do unless they want to condemn property and take it away," attorney James. W. Jennings Jr. said.

Jennings said the dispute arose because the fishermen relied on a fishing map published by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries "that was just not researched. It was erroneous."

He said other fishermen who relied on that map moved along when told they were trespassing, but Coggeshall and his brother-in-law were adamant that they had a right to wade the river as they fished.

Jennings added that the defendants weren't the only ones taking a hit in the pocketbook.

"It's a shame the landowners had to spend money to protect their property rights," he said. "These are not evil, nasty people. Property rights are honored in this country."

The landowners sued for $10,000 but were awarded no damages because there was no proof they suffered actual monetary loss.

The River's Edge, near Covington, is described on its website as a "unique conservation-based, residential community." Residents are promised "the privilege of access to over 4 miles of private river frontage and year round fly fishing _ all from their own backyard."


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)