Virginia Stream Bed Ownership and Access Bills in the 2015 General Assembly

Sen. Creigh Deeds of Hot Springs (Bath County) introduced two bills into the 2015 Virginia General Assembly—SB 1266 and SB 1271—that relate to legal questions and conflicts over ownership of, and recreational access to, the beds of inland streams in Virginia, also referred to as “subaqueous lands.”  Sen. Deeds later withdrew the bills because of opposition encountered from various sides of the issue, according to Sen. Deeds General Assembly newsletter of February 6, 2015.  (Sen. Deeds’ 2015 General Assembly newsletters are available online at http://senatordeeds.com/category/virginia-general-assembly-2015.)

Following is Sen. Deeds’ explanation of the background of the bills and their basic provisions, according to his 1/23/15 General Assembly newsletter.  Sen. Deeds’ comments give a good introduction to, as he puts it, “an area of ongoing controversy” in Virginia water resources.

“An area of ongoing controversy is subaqueous lands, or river bottoms.  Under Virginia law, [in] land west of the fall line of the James River, river bottoms that were granted out by the crown prior to 1802 are the private property of the landowner.  If they were not granted out, those lands are the property of the Commonwealth.  This is an issue that has caused mountains of litigation and controversy over the years and resulted in the introduction of any number of bills that ultimately would have taken people’s property away from them.  In 2013, I asked the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to convene a work group to examine the issue and develop some alternative means of dispute resolution that protects private property rights but also encourage landowners to open up these bottomlands to canoeists and fisherman.  Those discussions generated two ideas that I brought forward via legislation this year.  The first bill, SB 1271, sets up a means for people to determine—short of going to court—and ultimately to arbitrate whether a crown grant exists. … The second bill [SB 1266] would set up a process whereby a landowner could grant an easement across subaqueous land to the benefit of the Commonwealth, and incur a tax benefit if the public is granted use. … Both bills seek to provide additional tools to those involved in this contentious issue.”

For more background on the issues of stream bed ownership and access in Virginia, please the following Virginia Water Central News Grouper post: November 2012 Update on Court Case over Stream Ownership and Access Rights on Jackson River in Alleghany County, Va.

And for a 2 min./23 sec. audio introduction to the topic, have a listen to Virginia Water Radio Episode 76 (8/22/11), “Jackson River Stream Rights Case,” online at http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/2011/08/episode-76-august-22-2011-jackson-river.html.

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