Steephill Street: Accidental Public/Private Partnership

In this week’s Hook, Lisa Provence writes about the apparent taking of private property by the city without ever actually taking it. They’ve taken over Steephill Street, despite that one of the owners of the private road, Louis Schultz, would like them to knock it off. From Schultz’s perspective, the city is treating it alternately as public property and private property, depending on what’s most convenient for them. It’s a strange problem.

Schultz raised this with Council last month, and sent me the full text of his comments, which I’ve included below. Disclaimer: Louis and I are old friends.

I’ve come here this evening to address City Council, but really my purpose is to bring an important matter to the attention of those of you in the audience who have elected them.

The last few years have been a dark chapter in the history of this city, and I’m here tonight to demand an end to that chapter.

Each city councilor has, as a qualification for holding elected office, taken an oath which I will paraphrase slightly for clarity. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all of the duties incumbent on me ….. according to the best of my ability; (so help me God).”

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly mandates that no person be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. It reads, and again I paraphrase to eliminate parts which aren’t relevant to this discussion, “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The effect of that amendment was explicitly extended by the 14th amendment to cover actions by individual states. It reads: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In the written opinion of the City Attorney, which was produced to guide city staff and which has been made available to myself and the public in general, a street like Steephill Street which adjoins my property in the Woolen Mills neighborhood is private property with no public rights of access. The memo from the city attorney goes on to state that ownership by adjoining property owners extends to the center line of the private right of way.

I have on numerous occasions contacted city staff, most notably, the Department of Neighborhood Development Services in a vain attempt to get some help in protecting the stream that runs through my property from erosion on Steephill. That erosion comes from an erosion impact area which is clearly illegal under the City’ Water Protection Ordinance. That department’s general unwillingness, and inability to handle enforcement of that ordinance is worth discussion as a separate topic, but the response that I got in particular about Steephill Street is that it is private property and for some reason outside of the scope of that ordinance. The private status of Steephill has been restated numerous time in City documents that I have obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The Street is marked as private on both ends by City installed street signs.

Paradoxically though, the City claims rights of ownership as it pleases. In 2001, city crews spent taxpayer money to replace the deteriorated bridge on Steephill. Claudette Grant of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services, in a letter dated October 30,2003 claimed the bridge as City property. By the summer of last year, negligence on the part of the city had caused the bridge to become unsafe. Because liability issues are still unclear, I notified the City Attorneys office that I wasn’t interested in accepting legal liability for the City’s negligence and attempted to start a discussion regarding possible legally sound decisions about the future of the bridge. I was left for months with no suitable answers to my questions and instead received a telephone call on October 12 from someone else telling me that construction had begun on a new bridge. On October 13 of 2006, in a meeting in City Attorney Craig Brown’s office, Angela Tucker told me in no uncertain terms that I had no say in the future of the bridge, again claiming that it is the City’s. The reason for rebuilding the bridge at the cost of several thousand tax dollars was to provide access from East Market St. to a single address on Steephill which already had access from Chesapeake.

If you will recall the provisions established by the two previously mentioned Constitutional Amendements, due process is a requirement of seizures of private property by the government.

None of the procedures established in section ยง 25.1-203 of the Code of Virginia were adhered to however.

As a first step, request for permission to inspect before seizure of property must provide the following: (i) the specific date or dates such inspection is proposed to be made; (ii) the name of the entity entering the property; (iii) the purpose for which entry is made; and (iv) the testing, appraisals, or examinations to be performed and other actions to be taken.The notice of intent to enter shall include a copy of the request for permission to inspect and shall be made not less than 15 days prior to the date of intended entry.

Section 25.1-204 of the State Code says no owner shall be required to surrender possession of real property before the state agency pays the agreed purchase price, or deposits with the state court in accordance with applicable law, for the benefit of the owner, (i) an amount not less than the agency’s approved appraisal of the fair market value of such property, if such an appraisal is required, or (ii) the amount of the award of compensation in the condemnation proceeding for such property.

A petition for condemnation must include the following
a. The authority for the taking;
b. The necessity for the work or improvements to be made;
c. The public uses for which the property is to be taken;
d. A description of the work or improvements to be made; and if (i) only a portion of the property is to be taken or (ii) any other property will or is likely to be damaged as the result of the taking, a plat, drawing or plan, in sufficient detail to disclose fairly the nature of such work or improvements, including specifications, elevations and grade changes, if any, so as to enable the owner of such property to be reasonably informed of the nature, extent and effect of such taking and the construction and operation of such works and improvements, shall be attached as an exhibit to the petition;
e. The estate, interest or rights in the property to be taken;
f. A description of the property to be taken sufficient for its identification and a plan or plat of the land to be taken shall be attached as an exhibit to the petition;
g. As to each separate piece of property to be taken or damaged, the names and residences, so far as known by petitioner, of the defendants who are joined as owners of the property, or of some interest therein, if their names have been ascertained by a reasonably diligent search of the records, considering the character and value of the property involved and the interests to be acquired, or if their names have otherwise been learned; and if the names of other persons or classes of persons to be joined as owners of the property are unknown, such persons may be made defendants under the designation of “Unknown Owners”;

I have raised the issue of Steephill Street to this council both in writing and in an appearance here several months ago. After my last address to council, Mr. Lynch proposed that the City adopt Steephill Street for maintenance by the city. There are several problems with that suggestion. The first is that no movement seems to have been taken in that direction, or if it has, no one has yet seem fit to contact me about it. The second problem is that the city, in particular it seems the Department of Neighborhood Development Services is so overburdened that it can’t find the manpower to address several violations of the Water Protection Ordinance that I have brought to its attention. The City can’t find the funds to do what it is already obliged to do without continuing to raise property taxes to astronomical levels and there is no legitimate public purpose to be served by having the City accept responsibility for Steephill Street. The strongest objection though that I have to Mr. Lynch’s proposal is that it in effect serves to sweep under the rug, and in therby sanction willfully illegal actions on the part of City officials.

What I am asking for instead of Mr. Lych’s proposal is:

  • first of all, a formal public apology from the City of Charlottesville for the situation that it has caused on Steephill St.
  • immediate removal of the bridge which the city has built on Steephill Street and a clear restatement that the City has no legal right of any sort to that private property until such time as proper due process as required by state law is followed to bring that street into the public road system
  • immediate investigation into the practices and management of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services which allow illegal actions to be taken with impunity

Councilors, the men whose images adorn the exterior of this very building were willing to give their lives for the principles enshrined in the constitution. By comparison, your oath to support the constitution is a far easier task, yet you have collectively failed even in that. It is time to give this matter the attention that it deserves and it should immediately be moved to the top of you agenda. If you cannot fulfill the obligations of your oath to support the constitution, then your resignations should instead be at the top of your agenda. Respect for the legacies of the three presidents who we call our own demands nothing less.

8 thoughts on “Steephill Street: Accidental Public/Private Partnership”

  1. It is telling that, in a neighborhood that often hangs together on zoning and other civic issues, Louis stands alone on this one. Bottom line is that Hal and Lee CANNOT get to their house from Chesapeake. The street is too steep. (Hence the name.) They need the bridge to get home from East Market. Calling for the resignations of city councillors over this issue is over the top. Lighten up, Louis.

  2. This isn’t about access nor is it about the neighbors. It is about how the City conducts itself. When the city won’t build a sidewalk on its own right of way without notifying adjacent property owners, but they will build a bridge on private property with no notice to anyone – what is that about?

    The city has yet to put anything in writing about its own liability for the structure and won’t take any responsibility for having made a mess of this. The city needs to start owning up to the mistakes it has made, provide some real oversight and supervision of its employees and correct this (and other painfully similar) problem for the long term through action, not silence. As it stands now, things are as they have always been – a complete mess. Is it unreasonable to ask that the city fess up, fix it, do the right thing to protect all the property owners.

  3. Hal & Lee should have an easement, sounds like. Pissing off Louis by paving and building bridges on his property without warning does not sound helpful. I don’t know why he hasn’t filed a lawsuit, except that it shouldn’t be necessary if City Council would listen to his lengthy speech about the Constitution :).

    Laura, what are the similar cases?

    What’s the deal with those alleys in Belmont? Property owners have been slowly taking them over for years, but they are great walkways away from traffic. When I lived there, our alley was still passable by foot but not by vehicle, due to brush piles. Kids used it to go to school. One day I was in our ruin of a garage, no roof, soon to be demolished, and I looked up to hear somebody say, “fix me a sandwich.” It was a drunk guy & his buddy, at 10 in the morning. Later I explored the alley and realized they had been camping out back there for a few days, or at least they picked up clothes at the nearby church and changed there.

  4. As a matter of fact, Louis does NOT stand alone on this very complicated matter. There are people in the neighborhood who have been working to encourage Charlottesville to come up with a coherent policy on Steephill, one that they will actually stick with and not cite only when it’s convenient to do so.

    We do our best to support each other in the Woolen Mills. “We can all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.” But this is not merely a Woolen Mills issue, it’s a city-wide issue. Any of you out there reading this who have undeclared or unaccepted streets or alleys around your properties need to sit up and take notice. Because this is about you too.

    It’s just far too easy (or perhaps lazy) to point at someone like Louis and declare, based on his arrest or his recent speech before Council, that he’s being unreasonable. But to do so is to ignore the history of this matter: He’s had a very reasonable request that’s been stonewalled for years– that the City clarify its policy regarding public versus private streets in such a way that clearly addresses important issues like liability. Doing so will be of benefit to everyone that lives on Steephill and other streets like it.

    (The City’s past history of punitive actions regarding Louis’s grass or his compost pile haven’t exactly been confidence-inspiring either.)

    So… how about an apology and a solution?

  5. A similar situation at 1512 E. Market where City staff missteps are now in the process of being institutionalized (though the case is under appeal at the moment) and endangering a historic property. Again, justification by staff of mistakes rather than acknowledgement that mistakes were made. I am sketchy on the details, but I think a very similar situation in the Little High/Martha Jefferson area with the Region Ten facility there that ended up having to be worked out in court – the person taking them to court Mark ?? won the case against the city with some pretty strong words from the judge. I have heard of a few other examples of staff making on the ground arrangements that contradict written policy, but I don’t have enough info to be specific… I hope this discussion brings other instances to the table that I am not aware of so that our elected officials will take note and begin to accept responsibilty and be accountable.

  6. I stand corrected. I thought it WAS about access and the neighbors, given the nasty message Louis spray-painted on Steephill.

    C’mon World-Class City, get this fixed so that we can all get along.

  7. The city is welcome to pave my driveway anytime, and without asking me. I won’t sit in front of the effort, nor will I write grafitti on it, nor will I complain.

  8. Louis is trying to protect the creek, AFAIK. Woolen Mills is one of the few neighborhoods in the city where you can get good bottom land! If there are people upstream growing Chemlawns with no stream buffer, I could see how that would piss him off. I don’t know which neighbors those are, but I imagine there are some somewhere upstream. Meanwhile, Louis gets turned in for having brush piles and such, practices that help the stream.

    But apparently Hal & Lee need access to their property, are old Charlottesville, have friends in the City’s old Public Works dept., believe in civilization, clean yards and good roads, etc. I’m just *speculating* here.

    So why can’t each give the other some of what they want? Louis wants the stream protected (and to tell people about the Constitution). Hal & Lee want a decent driveway, maybe even one that would convey after their ownership. I believe in Virginia a platted property must have access to a road, either directly or by easement. So go to it! Trade an road easement for a conservation easement, or some other sort of agreement on protecting the stream.

    And make the city accountable. That is some nonsense there.

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