While Dominion is suing landowners in its pursuit of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, closer to home, Charlottesville is flexing its own eminent domain muscle and has filed a survey-seeking petition against a landowner who for years has accused the city of illegally taking his property.
That would be Woolen Mills resident Louis Schultz, who’s been arrested twice defending Steephill Street, a private lane for the use of adjacent property owners, according to his deed, under which the city admits it somehow ran utilities without getting an easement.
Charlottesville and Schultz have clashed repeatedly since he bought the East Market Street property in 1999. Early on, he attempted to create riparian buffers for the stream that runs through his lot and was cited for not cutting his grass. When a neighbor tried in 2004 to pave a portion of Steephill that Schultz contends he owned, Schultz sat down in front of an asphalt truck and was arrested.
In 2010, when city workers tried to repair a sewer line on property Schultz says is his, he drove his car nose-to-nose with a backhoe and was charged with attempted malicious wounding. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct because it would have cost $10,000 to fight the felony charge, he says, and was on probation for two years.
In February, the city sent Schultz a letter seeking permission to take a look at the property. When Schultz did not respond, on March 13 the city sent a certified letter and hand delivered “a notice of entry onto property for inspection related to acquisition of utility easements,” according to the petition.
In response, Schultz sent a resounding no March 30 to City Attorney Craig Brown, City Council and City Manager Maurice Jones. “Such an intrusion is not authorized by the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he wrote. “I forbid it, and anyone acting under a claim of that authority to enter my property will be prosecuted for criminal trespass…”
In the latest round, “We’ve filed a petition in circuit court to gain access to the property for the purpose of surveying,” says Brown. After determining how much of an easement the city needs, it will make Schultz an offer he can’t refuse. Or rather, if he refuses, Brown says he will go to City Council and ask it to authorize the easement.
“We’re interested in being able to access our utility lines,” says Brown, who admits he doesn’t know exactly when these water, sewer and natural gas lines went in.
Schultz says the city has violated federal civil rights law by illegally trying to take his property when it knows it doesn’t own it, and that city workers need to be trained to respect private property.
“The sewer line the city claimed to own—Brown said the city had no record of installing it,” says Schultz, who has attended 40 City Council meetings trying to get councilors to pay attention to what he says are unconstitutional activities.
And he says the city illegally built a bridge on his property that’s unsafe and that city-caused damage has created a “dangerous sinkhole” on Steephill.
The problem in part dates back to 1978, when Steephill was incorrectly included on a list of “dedicated but unaccepted streets,” —alleys and small roads that were public rights of way not maintained by the city—resulting in a city land grab of private property, says Schultz.
Brown acknowledges Steephill is not a public right of way, and says the city wants to work on the deteriorating bridge because of the utility lines that run underneath. “We’ve got concerns about the sanitary sewer line that may be failing,” he says. “The lines wear out and need repair.” And if not fixed, says Brown, “It’s not a good experience for anyone.”
Schultz does want the city to repair the four-foot sinkhole on Steephill because it’s “likely to leak sewage onto my land,” says Schultz. He cares deeply about his property, he says. “I’ve worked my butt off on it for 16 years.”
He claims that city incompetence has washed sediment onto his property and “caused demonstrable harm.” Says Schultz, “I don’t want them to have an easement. I’m terrified at what they’ve done.”