Public access authorities preserving coastal access in VA
The goal is to stem the loss of sites on the waterfront best suited for water-based businesses and recreation.
State Road 110 in Gloucester County ends in a small parking lot, crowded in between modest homes to one side and Belvins Seafood warehouse on the other.
There’s parking for eight cars, a boat ramp and a commercial wharf that’s recently been expanded to accommodate up to 15 boats.
On a cold and overcast February afternoon, this road ending — and the pier beyond — seemed unremarkable, blending into a gray landscape and the watery horizon a half mile beyond where the Perrin River empties into the York River.
But coastal planner Harrison Breese, from the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, noted that the wharf is one of nine acquisitions by a unique public access authority that is working to slow the loss of commercial waterfronts and public access on the peninsula, which has more than 1,200 miles of shoreline.
The Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority turned a run-down, end-of the-road wharf in Guinea, VA, into a showcase example of how waterfronts in tidewater Virginia can be revived for the use of watermen and others who are losing access to the water that is vital for water-dependent industries and recreation activities.
The Perrin River Wharf is now owned and managed by the access authority. With funding from the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and donated materials and labor, finger piers were added to provide room for the boats of 15 commercial watermen displaced when nearby Cook’s Seafood closed in 2012.
The authority is an entity of local government created in 2003 that exists to preserve public access to the Bay and its coastal rivers on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula for watermen, recreational boaters, hunting enthusiasts, as well as to protect land for conservation.
Back on the Perrin River, Breese greeted Billy Bonneville, a local commercial fisherman who lives nearby. Together with Tommy Leggett, an oyster farmer who lives just a few houses upriver from the wharf, they took a chilly tour of Perrin River to help put the wharf project in context.
Leggett steered his skiff, Nancy May, past Crowne Point Marina, where several dozens of sailboats and recreational powerboats sat quietly buttoned up waiting for weekends and warmer weather.
“They used to allow workboats here when I first started,” Bonneville recalled. “There was half a dozen crab boats here.” But the marina eventually ran them out because people on the yachts complained about the noise from the crabbers coming and going at all hours.
Passing another wharf, Bonneville said, “I used to tie up here for years. Then I come down one morning, and they’ve put a sign on the door wanting $300 a month rent, plus I had to have boat insurance.” The wooden boats favored by watermen are more expensive to insure. With an already tight profit margin, many watermen forgo this added expense.
He said that some marinas give watermen a break, but he knows they’re losing money doing it. “They can fill the slips with expensive boats and yachts.”
As the skiff passed by the quiet dock and loading deck of York River Seafood, Bonneville said, “Not sure what’s going to happen to this one here, now that the owner has died.” Farther east toward the mouth of the river, Herman Greene & Son’s Seafood has been shuttered for more than two years.
Gloucester County ordinances passed well after the business was established now zone the land as residential. A special use permit — which costs time and money — would now be required were the land to be used for a water-dependent business.
Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, said that creating the public access authority was in part a response to a landmark case that was decided by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1998 (Frederick J. Shaheen, et al., v. County of Mathews). The court affirmed the right of the public to continue to use Auburn Landing, a road ending at the water in Mathews County, that had been used by locals for decades.
With growing pressure on waterfront property from newcomers seeking their own private access to the water, the counties of the Middle Peninsula realized they would need to be proactive to ensure public access for recreation and commercial activities — no county could afford to litigate each of the 300 road endings in the region that were under similar threat.
There had to be another way, a way that would not further burden local governments faced with never-ending budget challenges. These coastal counties were built based on their access to the water, but the needs of schools, public safety and infrastructure often trump investments in conservation and public access.
Lewis reasoned that while the local governments his agency serves value public access and safeguarding working waterfronts, there might be a better way to ensure that these needs did not have to compete with the basic functions of government.
At first, the concept of a public access authority was envisioned as a way to acquire and manage road endings, but under legislation sponsored by Del. Harvey Morgan and passed in the 2002 General Assembly, the authority emerged as a tool to acquire public and privately held lands; develop management plans for public use and access; and sell properties that it owns to fulfill its mission.
Since 2003, the Middle Peninsula access authority has assumed ownership and management of 970 acres of waterfront — with 35 more acres in the works. The first acquisition — in an arrangement between Virginia Department of Forestry, The Nature Conservancy and the authority — resulted in almost 274 acres that provided access to the Dragon Run, a pristine tidal freshwater tributary of the Piankatank River. Two subsequent acquisitions added another 560 acres of publicly accessible lands in the Dragon Run watershed.
By the time Bonneville brought the plight of watermen on the Perrin River to the attention of the Gloucester Board of Supervisors in 2011, it was evident that the public access authority might be used to solve another “road ending” problem.
“VDOT (the Virginia Department of Transportation) is in the road business, not the water access business,” states the Gloucester County Perrin River Master Plan. But the public access authority is.
After additional legislation in 2011 clarified the ability of the Virginia transportation department to transfer ownership directly to the access authority, Perrin Wharf Pier joined the inventory of public access holdings by the authority.
Breese, who doubles as part-time staff to the public access authority, said that developing management plans for the new sites is usually the first step after acquisition, but sometimes the need for access is pressing enough that limited use is granted before the plan is in place.
Ninety-seven acres of waterfront property on the Severn River in Mobjack Bay had just been donated when the Gloucester Rowing Club began looking for a new place to store and launch their boats. With more than a mile of shoreline, a 7,000 square-foot home and numerous outbuildings, the club found a new place to call home.
Breese said that the donation served as an easy and efficient tax break for the owner, who would never be able to recoup his investment.
The access authority’s response to the gift was swift — much more so than local governments typically are when offered charitable donations, Lawrence said. The house, the land and all of the outbuildings were valued at $3.6 million.
Not all acquisitions are by donation, though. Lawrence said that federal and state funding sources are tapped when available — with his own agency and staff providing some of the local match. All of the planning districts in Tidewater receive an annual technical assistance grant from the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, which helps to cover staff support for the access authority.
Site management plans and other authority projects, like the public access inventory and a shallow-water dredging study undertaken early on by the authority, require dollars that are in scarce supply. Laura McKay, longtime manager of Virginia’s CZM program, said that program funds from NOAA’s coastal program reached a high in 1994 and have trended downward ever since.
While the use of a public authority to protect or provide access has yet to be adopted by other states, Virginia now boasts two, with a third on the way. The Northern Neck Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority was enabled in 2005 and created in 2006.
Legislation that enables the creation of a third public access authority for Virginia’s Eastern Shore was pending the governor’s signature as the Bay Journal went to press.
Jerry Davis, executive director of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission, which helped launch the second public access authority, said that the agency initially focused on inventorying access sites and working on specific projects nominated by each local government as opposed to acquiring and managing properties.
Stuart McKenzie, planner for the district and staff to the authority, has also adopted a broad interpretation of public access. “If you want to take a picnic down to the water’s edge and look out on the water; if it’s just a little creek, and you want to put a canoe in…that’s all public access,” McKenzie said. And it all contributes to a sense of belonging to a place that has for centuries been defined by the water surrounding it.
The Northern Neck’s access authority has worked with the Middle Peninsula authority on some projects — including the shallow-water dredging study to help quantify the costs and benefits of investing in and maintaining access on shoaling creeks that the Army Corps of Engineers will no longer maintain.
The authority has also improved access at several existing sites on the Northern Neck with an eye to creating water trails along the shoreline, McKenzie said. When the authority convenes in April, it will re-examine opportunities for acquiring ownership of public access sites, much in the way that the Middle Peninsula authority has.
Only 1 percent of Virginia’s shoreline is publicly owned. Public access includes federal lands like the national wildlife refuges, state parks, fishing ramps operated by Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and parks and ramps owned by local governments. All ensure access for the growing number — and variety — of users flocking to the water for recreation and their livelihood.
But with 300 public road endings — many still serving as rustic boat launches — on the Middle Peninsula alone, the authority will continue to seek opportunities for increasing and protecting as much shoreline as possible for the common good.