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MILFORD – After many questions, the Caroline County Board of Supervisor voted 4-2 to allow a public boat landing on the Mattaponi River off Nelson Hill Road.
The boat landing, which will serve canoes, kayaks, and small boats with motors, will be developed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries a 2.8-acre site owned by the county in the village of Milford. It will include a boat ramp and parking lot.
The department’s Mattaponi Wildlife Management area is located upriver off Paige Road and already contains a small boat public landing. The agency sought permission to establish a second boat landing on county property down river in order to make the stretch of the Mattaponi more accessible for boaters and anglers.
Property owners along the river, however, voiced opposition to the proposed boat landing during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday night; they also voiced opposition at an earlier meeting and in letters to county officials. The landowners say they have been plagued by trespassers who have cut fences, scattered litter on their property, vandalized buildings and farm fields, hunted illegally, and even burned down a house.
The two dissenting votes came from Supervisors Floyd Thomas and Jeff Sili. Early in the discussion, Thomas said, “I don’t want the boat ramp if it’s going to be a problem with property owners.”
Before the vote, landowner Wayne Brooks told the supervisors, “I want you to think hard about this and the concerns we have expressed. It’s frustrating to the property owners.”
“It’s very difficult to navigate the river with a canoe,” noted Brooks. Fallen trees create obstacles, and canoeists must take their canoe out of the water and carry it around.
Sili told his fellow supervisors that he had canoed the portion of the Mattaponi in question. “I have floated the river,” he said. “There are enough trees in the river that you have to walk two-tenths of a mile in some places. To boat that part of the river is near impossible.”
Part of the debate focused on who owns the land beneath the water. Brooks co-owns 115 acres of riverfront land with his brother, Alton Burt Brooks. “Property owners own to the center of the river,” Brooks told the supervisors. “That is true on the Mattaponi. The state owns the water.”
Larry Hart, director of infrastructure for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, disagreed. Reading from state law, Hart said: “All beds of lakes and rivers shall remain the property of the Commonwealth.” A landowner making the claim that Brooks did would have to prove that a king of England granted ownership of the river bottom in the 1600s or 1700s, according to Hart.
“Hypothetically,” asked Thomas, “let’s say that I canoe down the river, and it’s blocked and I walk around on a person’s property. And it’s posted with no-trespassing signs. Am I trespassing?”
Yes, Hart replied. He also noted the department does not clear obstacles in the river. Conservation officers will patrol the river, but not on a daily basis.
“Is this a navigable river?” asked Supervisor Jeff Black.
“It is up to the bridge in Milford,” said Hart.
Black said he had researched the legal issues involved. “You can’t close a river because of landowners,” he said.
Hart said the department would like a 20-year agreement with the county.
“Is there any way out of the agreement before the 20 years is up?” asked Thomas.
It could be written that way, suggested Hart, “but we would get partial reimbursement for our investment.”
Hart noted that he had taken a canoe down the Mattaponi, too. “I put in at the Paige (Road) bridge and went down the river and then paddled back upstream. There was one place where I had to get out.”
“The state is going to pay for this, and we will never have the opportunity to do this again,” said Supervisor Calvin Taylor. “I hate to see us pass up this opportunity.”
Taylor joined with Black and Supervisors Reggie Underwood and Wayne Acors in approving the request.
The board’s vote directed County Administrator Charles Culley Jr. to work out the agreement with the department.