Letter: Scenic River controversy flows on

I just finished reading for the third time the July 15 front-page article about the Rappahannock Board of Supervisors delaying a vote on a State Scenic River designation for the Hazel River in Rapphannock County, from the F.T. Valley Road to just above the river’s confluence with the Hughes.

And I am perplexed.

First, what the Board of Supervisors is being asked to do by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is approve going forward with State Scenic River designation for a relatively short segment of the Hazel in Rappahannock County (and, as an aside, the Hazel’s confluence with the Hughes is not in Rappahannock but in Culpeper County, so neither the confluence nor Culpeper County is involved). Actual designation does not lie in the hands of the board. Rather, that is a matter for the General Assembly and the governor. If the matter is so controversial that a state delegate or senator will not sponsor it or even so, relevant committees in both chambers do not approve it, it dies.

Second, the Culpeper section of the Hazel is not designated State Scenic. Never has been. The Rappahannock River is and has been since 1985. It is true the Hazel River is a tributary to the Rappahannock. But the Hazel itself in Culpeper is not State Scenic nor has it ever been designated as such. Therefore, I really do not understand Ben and Rita Grace’s statements about the scenic river program. They say they have prosecuted 34 people for trespassing in recent years on their property on the Hazel in Culpeper, and they seem to connect that to the Hazel’s State Scenic River status. But it does not have that status where they live. Perhaps they were talking about the Rappahannock?

As for the state scenic river program being “a blatant and evil land grab,” after careful consideration of moving forward with designation for the Hughes and Jordan Rivers last year, neither the former Rappahannock Board of Supervisors nor the Culpeper Board of Supervisors agreed with such strange statements. Both voted to move forward with designation of these two rivers, the General Assembly agreed with very little if any debate, and the governor signed both rivers into the program by law last May. Look up the board votes. You will see that the Rappahannock supervisor votes were unanimous.

I was very glad for Jeff Smith’s statements. I am glad that he pointed out that state scenic designation is largely honorific. Because it is. While it is true the act prohibits something, it is only one thing, and that is the placement of dams on such designated rivers, a prohibition, I might add, which the General Assembly can overturn at any time for any river. A much-appreciated benefit is that if a landholder on such a river wishes to apply for a conservation easement, his or her application nearly automatically gets plus points.

I was very glad for Supervisor Bryant Lee’s statements. He tried to set everyone straight about what was actually being considered, and it is a segment of the Hazel in Rappahannock, not Culpeper. I was very glad to hear that he has heard no complaints from anyone in the county on the Hughes or Jordan Rivers. It was interesting last year to hear supervisors in both Rappahannock and Culpeper counties note in public meetings that for the 25 years the Rappahannock River has been so designated, they have heard no supportable complaints. Both boards were careful to ask their administrators about that, just to make sure.

For hundreds of years, as Sally Mello pointed out in her Letter to the Editor, local folks and visitors have enjoyed swimming, fishing, gigging, and boating on the Hazel and the Hughes as well as other local rivers, but most particularly the Hughes, from the Route 231 bridge to its confluence with the Hazel, and then most particularly on the Hazel all the way to the Rappahannock. This is nothing new. Private landholders back then and to this day enjoy all the rights they’ve always had whether a river is state scenic or not, irrespective of what sometimes seems like massive confusion out there about what state scenic means as opposed to other laws that address others matters such as, for example, pollution.

While I respect Supervisor Chris Parrish’s caution, I hope the board will take into consideration all the points raised above as well as others — truly get educated about what state scenic does and does not do — before taking a vote on this matter.

Kit Johnston