Last year, Outdoor Magazine rated Richmond the top “river town” in America. Surprised? Don’t be. Over the last ten years, Richmond has become a mecca for active living.
A key piece of Richmond’s appeal is its location at the fall line of the James River. Besides its stunning views, the James is also home to white-water rafting, competitive kayaking and fly fishing.
As it flows through Richmond, the James is a public resource. Anyone can put in a boat and travel down it, just like Captain John Smith or the native Susquehannocks (pick your ancestry).
But what happens when a river is “owned” by a private party, who attempts to block access or files a lawsuit against “trespassers” who have legally entered the waters?
My “free rivers” bill (SB 737) is an attempt to address the situation and protect recreational boaters and paddlers. But first a bit of background …
Public ownership of running waters has been a staple of English common law since the Magna Carta was enacted in 1215. To a large extent, that concept has been carried forward by the U.S. constitution which held that “navigable waters” were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal government and could not have their uses restricted.
What is “navigable” is the defining issue. A commercial cargo vessel can navigate up to the City of Richmond and no further. A kayak can navigate the head-waters of the James, which reaches deep into the Alleghany Mountains in western Virginia. In the latter case, some land-owners have taken hostile action against canoeists and fly fishermen who come onto “their” land.
The ensuing legal fights have tested property rights, as set out in ancient deeds, against the concept of public ownership of our waters. In a nutshell, some Virginia landowners have “king’s grants” which extend their ownership to the bottoms of creeks and rivers (similar to how the State of Maryland “owns” the Potomac River). They have used this extended ownership to bar recreational use of the river past their property. Of course, once you bar access to a portion of the river, you pretty much destroy all access.
My bill would address this by stating that recreational boaters in non-motorized vessels cannot be sued (or criminally charged) for trespass for floating on a body of water that they legally accessed. This concept is strongly supported by the outdoors groups, including those who make Richmond such a great place to live.
The “free rivers” bill will be heard today in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture. I’m hoping that we can pass the bill and take a major step to promote outdoors recreation in Virginia. So we’re not just a free river city in Richmond — we’re a free river commonwealth.