On Steep Hill Street, a city resident’s private property fight scales up

Steep Hill Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, scene of a years-old private property battle, is one of dozens of old city streets whose ownership status is less than black-and-white. File image. Steep Hill Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, scene of a years-old private property battle, is one of dozens of old city streets whose ownership status is less than black-and-white. File image.

Louis Schultz has twice been handcuffed and once pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct as part of a crusade to keep city employees off the tiny private road his Woolen Mills property borders. Now he’s again needling the city to address what he says is a creeping effort at a land grab, arguing that what’s happening in his backyard is indicative of a bigger policy problem in Charlottesville.

Schultz shares with adjacent property owners the block-long, aptly named Steep Hill Street, which crosses a small brook via a wooden bridge near East Market Street before climbing to Chesapeake Street.

Just who owns Steep Hill isn’t clear—a deed that shows the subdivided lots notes that it’s intended for the sole use of the adjacent property owners. One thing Schultz says is clear: The city doesn’t have a right to mess with it. But on various occasions, it has, and Schultz has documented every incident with photographs and extensive notes.

A Charlottesville Public Works truck clearing Schultz’s stream after a water main break choked the little Rivanna tributary with gravel damaged the wooden bridge more than a dozen years ago, said Schultz, and the city attempted repairs that have led to erosion. And in April 2010, public works employees arrived to dig out a broken buried sewer line under the street. Schultz protested, claiming the line was private and the city was trespassing. After he drove his car up to the workers, he was arrested on felony assault charges, and later pleaded to the lesser disorderly conduct charge.

But he’s not ready to give up.

“I just look at this crap the City Council tells us about how they’re a responsive government that cares about me as a citizen, and I said, ‘There’s something really wrong about this,’” he said.

Schultz is one man, and Steep Hill is one street. But according to planning and legal memos he acquired from the city earlier this year, his isn’t the only road in the city where ownership and right-of-way is sketchy at best.

Charlottesville’s streetscape is striped with alleys and small roads that have migrated from private to public use and maintenance in recent decades, apparently with no formal legal oversight of the process—despite the fact that the city code requires one.

City Attorney Craig Brown explained that many small private streets sprang up during the subdivision boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s here.

“Before the late 1940s, there was no process for localities to approve subdivision plats, so what you had was people creating these subdivisions showing new streets and filing them in the clerk’s office,” he said. Some remained privately held but were dedicated for public use; some, like Steep Hill, were marked as intended for use only by those who lived on the street; some gradually migrated into public use over the years, something legally referred to as “dedicated by implication.”

But dedicated—which means offered up for use by the public—isn’t the same as accepted. The latter term refers to streets whose ownership and maintenance responsibilities have been handed over to the city. That didn’t become the norm for newly laid residential streets until after 1947, Brown explained. The process is straightforward these days: A developer builds a road, offers it up to the city, and the city accepts it. But a lot of old residential cut-throughs and alleys never went through that acceptance process.

In his hunt for more information about Steep Hill’s status, Schultz dug up a 1978 memo prepared by now-mayor Satyendra Huja, then the city’s director of planning and community development, that lists 86 “dedicated but unaccepted” streets, about half of them closed to the public.

And here’s Schultz’s beef: While some of the little roads listed in the 1978 memo have remained little more than dirt driveways, dozens have somehow gone from being private drives to apparent public streets.

Hazel Street in the Locust Grove neighborhood, 13th Street N.E. near Meade Park, a portion of Rialto in Belmont—many of the private “converts” are now well-used residential streets, and evidently they’re paved, plowed, and otherwise maintained by the city, even though officials have been unable to turn up records of them being handed over.

In Schultz’s eyes, it looks like the city is quietly encroaching on private property, just as he says it’s tried to do on Steep Hill. At the very least, he said, “It’s absolutely mind-blowing to me that the city doesn’t keep better records.”

Huja did not return requests for comment on the evolution of his 1978 memo. Current Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert declined to weigh in.

Brown didn’t provide clarification on whether previously private streets had been absorbed by the city in the last 35 years, but he did say his legal advice has always been for officials to avoid making improvements to roadways it doesn’t own. “You start doing things like that, and then there can be an implied acceptance,” he said. “And where do you draw the line in terms of how much you need to do to accept it?”

Schultz has spoken up at several public meetings in the last month, and has repeatedly been told by elected officials that they’ve addressed his concerns.

“If you believe your constitutional rights have been violated by a city official or employee you should consult an attorney for advice on pursuing your claim through the court system,” Huja wrote in a November 1 letter.

Schultz said he just wants answers—and accountability.

“The city has committed crimes of seizing private property for a public use,” he said. “I’d like that to be corrected. I’d like people, when they screw up, at the very minimum to acknowledge it and fix the problem.”

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