June 19, 2008

Access to River Near Explore Heats Up

By Cody Lowe [email protected] 981-3425

The threat of a lawsuit against Virginia's Explore Park's board of directors Tuesday disrupted what otherwise has been a smooth transition to a state of hibernation for the Blue Ridge Parkway attraction.

At issue is access to the Roanoke River at the end of Rutrough Road and whether the public can construct a wooden ramp for putting small boats into and out of the river there.

A boaters' group threatened to sue the board, officially known as the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority, if it followed up on a suggestion from its lawyer that it may be necessary to block access to the site, already popular among river users.

The spot also is being considered for river access by Larry Vander Maten, a Florida entrepreneur who holds the option on a 99- year lease to develop the 1,100-acre park. An Explore board member says Vander Maten wants to build a marina at the site. He originally had been scheduled to begin construction on his proposed development by this month, but the authority in May granted an extension that could delay the project until mid-2010.

Vander Maten announced in April that he intends to go forward with his "overnight family vacation destination," and requested a lease revision requiring him to spend at least $90 million in the first three years' construction, up from $20 million.

At its regular monthly meeting Tuesday, the last it will hold at the park, the authority received a letter from the Roanoke chapter of the Float Fishermen of Virginia about river access.

Chapter President David Shelton threatened to sue the authority if it "were to fence and/or post the section of Rutrough Road going from the cul-de-sac to the water."

A key question in the disagreement is whether the Explore board owns that short stretch of property or whether it remains a public right-of-way all the way to the water's edge.

The authority's lawyer, Gregory Haley, asserted after Tuesday's meeting that the authority's deed shows ownership of the land.

Authority member Bill Tanger, who has been pushing for public access, based his position in large part on a 2005 letter from the Virginia Department of Transportation indicating that "it appears" Rutrough Road "is a public road running to the Roanoke River."

A legal battle likely would involve interpretations of arcane laws on the creation and abandonment of public roads in Virginia, not to mention rules on easements.

Authority Chairman Fred Anderson sought to head off that prospect by setting up a board committee to study the request in the Float Fishermen's letter: for the authority to "affirm that VDOT has an easement along Rutrough Road that goes down to the Roanoke River."

Although the issue apparently has been simmering awhile, it reached a boiling point in April when Haley wrote a letter to Tanger "as to Proposed Trespassing."

Tanger, an environmental activist who is chairman of Friends of the Rivers of Virginia, had, according to Haley, "stated your intention to enter the property of the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority to build a boat launching facility" on land Haley said belonged to the authority.

The letter threatened "criminal investigation and prosecution" over trespassing and destruction of property, and said, "your actions may force the Authority to restrict access to the area through construction of a fence and/or the posting of the property."

In an interview Tuesday, Tanger described plans for a small ramp built of used railroad crossties held in place with two-foot lengths of rebar. The idea is to provide a more secure foothold for boaters dragging canoes, kayaks and john boats up the slippery clay bank there, he said.

That, board member Stan Lanford said during the meeting, may be the crux of the matter.

The board "is not concerned about access, but it is concerned about building something. If someone wants to build something there, we as a board have some difficulty."

Tanger said that at an earlier meeting to try to resolve the dispute among a few board members and the lease holders, Vander Maten described plans to dredge the river at that site for a marina.

Tanger asserted that the river bottom is bedrock in that section and not suitable for dredging -- which would be precluded, in any case, to protect Roanoke logperch, a federally designated endangered species.

Dale Wilkinson, a Botetourt County developer and partner and spokesman for Vander Maten, on Tuesday declined to comment on any plans for the site. Maps of the park from late 2005 by Virginia Living Histories, Vander Maten's development company, are marked "River Access" near there, however.

After Tuesday's meeting, Tanger acknowledged the appeal of the Rutrough Road point. "Granted, the end of the public road is the best place" for Vander Maten to build his marina. "With the end of Back Creek there, it is probably better than any other place, but he has plenty of room to do his own marina."

Anderson didn't set any deadline for the committee studying the access issue to make a report. Tanger said he expects it will set one at its first meeting.

Much of the rest of the board's relatively short meeting was devoted to reports on winding down business at the park. Termite treatments are completed, for instance, and volunteers will keep 10 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails open even after the rest of the park becomes off-limits June 30.

And a board committee is preparing a "Plan B" in case Vander Maten is unable to secure financing within the next two years and has to abandon his project.

Finally, there were numerous, sometimes emotional, testimonials to the work of Debbie Pitts, the Roanoke County employee who has been the park's executive director for the past five years.

Anderson credited Pitts with accomplishing a near-Herculean task in keeping the park open and in budget over the past few years as funding sources began to dry up. Pitts will retire at the end of June.

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