Fenced out: Neighbors complain about closed shortcut

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When one North Downtown resident wanted neighbors to stop crossing her property to access that of the Park Street First Baptist Church, she built a fence—about a foot in front of the church’s fence and access gate. Photo by Skyclad Aerial When one North Downtown resident wanted neighbors to stop crossing her property to access that of the Park Street First Baptist Church, she built a fence—about a foot in front of the church’s fence and access gate. Photo by Skyclad Aerial

In the North Downtown neighborhood, a new fence is causing a fuss.

Where some Second Street NE residents have long walked down their dead-end lane to an unlocked gate that led to the backyard of the Park Street First Baptist Church, they’ve recently been faced with an obstruction to the beaten path.

It’s a fence—a second fence—built about one foot in front of the church’s.

Residents who have used the path and the church’s property as a place to walk their pooches, ride bicycles, sled in the winter and watch summer fireworks say the neighbor who lives nearest the fence has cut them off.

“Everybody is actually very irate over it,” says Amita Sudhir, who has lived on the street since 2011. “She’s effectively cut off our access to one of the best sources of recreation in the neighborhood. I can’t think of a single valid reason for her to do that.”

But Jane Angelhart says she owns the property and consulted a legal adviser before building the wooden wall.

“I have my reasons to put up a fence and I feel justified,” she says, not sharing many details, but contending that it wasn’t a decision she took lightly.

Others who live on Angelhart’s street have taken to neighborhood website Nextdoor—where friendly conversations oft turn ugly, and in this case, have—to call for removal of the pedestrian-blocking barricade on private property.

“If neighbors want to challenge it, then they need to do it in a proper way, not through bullying me online or in the newspaper,” says Angelhart.

But Angelhart has the support of at least one neighbor, Sandy Werner, who wrote on the website, “I trust her and know that she made this decision carefully after seeking counsel. As for the impact of the fence to me as a resident, I have accessed the church grounds this way myself for 20 years, but now I simply walk a few extra blocks to access via Park Street.”

According to Angelhart, it’s about a seven-minute walk for those who’d like to circumvent the church and enter through the front instead of the back. But that seven minutes makes all the difference for some folks.

“It’s like living beside a park, and Jane’s response is to just walk around because it’s only seven blocks,” says resident Diana Filipi. “Well that’s the difference between living beside a park and seven blocks away from a park.”

Filipi says neighbors have reached out to Vice-Mayor Heather Hill, another North Downtown resident, for guidance. City spokesperson Brian Wheeler says the fence is under review by the city’s Neighborhood Development Services staff.

Says Filipi, “That has been an open pedestrian access way for over 30 years and we believe that she is not allowed to just take that away.”

Former attorney Debbie Wyatt says she can understand why someone wouldn’t want a large volume of people consistently crossing her property.

She doesn’t mince words: “If it’s her property and the fence is legal, then she can put it up.”

However, if neighbors have been crossing her property for ages, they could make an argument that it’s a prescriptive easement, which can happen when people use a property openly for 20 years.

More than a decade ago, Wyatt represented “Razor wire widow” Shirley Presley, whose Bland Circle home abutted a section of a 20-mile trail network built by the Rivanna Trails Foundation without her permission. Presley began piling brush on the trail in 2002, and a year later, she sanctioned it off with razor wire.

After the city unsuccessfully sued Presley in 2004, she countersued the city and the Rivanna Trails Foundation in a $1.5 million suit that she eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

Adds Sudhir about the current case in her neighborhood, “Whether or not it’s legal for [Angelhart] to do that, it’s really kind of mean.”

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