Monday, August 22, 2011

Who "Owns" the Jackson River? Attorney General Cuccinelli Declines to Take a Position

Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that fishermen in Alleghany County are very disappointed with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's decision not to intervene on their behalf in a property dispute about ownership of the Jackson River. 

Peter Vieth's article is here, and the comment thread at the bottom of the page includes some pointed criticism of the AG's office.

Questions about the ownership of riverbeds, along with other questions of riparian rights, can be quite tricky.

Landowners along a river or stream often believe that they own the portion of the riverbed adjacent to their property -- and that other individuals do not have the right to enter onto the riverbed to fish, swim, or simply find a rock on which to bask in the warm summer sun.

However, in Virginia (as in many states) the general public has long had common law and/or statutory rights to use certain riverbeds.  And if a private riverside landowner attempts to block those rights, certain members of the public believe that the government has an obligation to step-in to defend the public's rights.


There's been a long simmering dispute in Alleghany County between fishermen who wade into the Jackson River and neighboring property owners who argue that the fishermen are trespassing on their property.

Now, some landowners have brought a $10,000 trespassing suit against the fishermen, and the defendants asked the Attorney General's office to defend their right -- as members of the general public -- to enter into the riverbed. 

Interestingly, the Lawyer's Weekly points out that the Commonwealth's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has long taken the position that the streambed of the Jackson River "belongs to the people of the state."

However, a spokesman for the Attorney General has stated that the state government need not be a party to the case in order for the court to determine the relative rights of the public and the property owners.

The property owners allege that, notwithstanding the general presumption that the Commonwealth owns riverbeds, they can trace their claim to ownership to two grants, from King George II (in 1743) and the Commonwealth (in 1785). 

Beau Beasley has a good summary of the issues at, here.

Oh, to be rollin' on the Jackson River, on a warm August day...