Danger on the Blackwater?

Published 7:21 pm Monday, July 2, 2018

Hunt Club member urges Isle of  Wight to keep other people out

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Members of local hunt clubs warned of serious problems — suicides, lost people and more — if Isle of Wight County took up the state’s offer to open the Blackwater property to the public.  

However, calls to a state dispatch center at a similar property — Big Woods — have been rather innocuous over the past year, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which manages the facility. 

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The Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal from Game and Inland Fisheries to open the roughly 2,500-acre Blackwater property to the public for hunting and other recreational uses.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

 The property has been leased in recent years for the exclusive use of two local hunt clubs.

At a public hearing in June before the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors, Isle of Wight Hunt Club member Fred Mitchell warned that allowing the public to hunt on the land, or even to wander around, was “opening up Pandora’s box.” 

Mitchell visualized the public encountering bears, poisonous snakes and insects, and compared it to Ragged Island, where the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department has responded to people who have gotten lost, stuck in trees or committed suicide. 

“There will be herds of people down there. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. It’s not a place for people to be, especially in the summer,” said Mitchell.

By comparison, Mitchell characterized hunt club hunters in a different light, “We hunt safe; we hunt organized.” 

Perilous calls for service have not been the case at the 2,188-acre Big Woods in Sussex County, which allows what would be a similar arrangement in Isle of Wight County. 

During the past year, there have been five calls for service to DGIF at Big Woods, said Karen Winn, who oversees the law records for the agency. 

Of those five, two involved hunt clubs — one concerning trespassing and another for running dogs, which is prohibited, said Winn. 

The other three involved someone parked in a handicapped spot, another was a report of people riding horses on the property, allegedly trying to scare turkeys and deer, and the third was to investigate a deer carcass, said Winn. 

Big Woods has been used for comparison by DGIF to the Blackwater property during discussions about allowing public access.

Peter Acker, terrestrial biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and who has been working with Isle of Wight on this issue, said Ragged Island is a very different piece of property than the Blackwater tract. 

Ragged Island is located along Route 17 and with easy access to the more urbanized populations around it, said Acker.

During the public hearing before the Board of Supervisors, others were concerned with letting in “outsiders” to use the property. 

Buxton Wells said he was an Isle of Wight native and that the property belonged to Isle of Wight residents.

“No outsiders,” he said. 

On the flip side, Rob Wilson, who lives next to the Blackwater property, said the activities that have occurred on the property are “not always rainbows and roses.” Wilson spoke of trucks speeding down the gravel road and of caring for hunting dogs that had gotten separated from their owners. 

Wilson said the property was purchased for all county residents, not just the highest bidder. 

“Everyone deserves a little piece of that,” he said.

The property was purchased with public money, and the hunt clubs that have held the leases had a residency requirement. 

Isle of Wight County attorney Mark Popovich said the 51 percent Isle of Wight resident requirement for the hunt club leases made him “uncomfortable.” 

Prior to the public hearing, Isle of Wight County Parks and Recreation Director David Smith described some of the possible uses of the property in addition to hunting, such as equestrian trails, bike and off-road trails, RV camping and canoeing and kayaking. 

If the state took over the management of the property, those who wanted to hunt would pay an $18 seasonal fee. The state would create three parking areas with kiosks, with future improvements to include trails and canoe/kayak launches, said Smith, adding that DGIF would want a 10-year agreement.

Smith pointed out that the county did receive revenue from the hunt club leases, and the current amount was $16,500 a year. 

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice said that hunting has a season and the property could be used for other activities in the off-season. 

A compromise can be found, said Grice.

Carrsville Supervisor Don Rosie said the property was acquired with public money and restricting it to private hunt clubs was not fair. Board Chairman Rudolph Jefferson said the original intent was for the property to be used by the public.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty said the safety issue “rings in my ears” and that the hunt clubs know the terrain.

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree talked about people needing to be rescued at Ragged Island and that with the hunt clubs, there is a contact person available — something not provided if the land was open to the public. 

The state has no control over the $18 fee payer, said Acree. 

Isle of Wight County purchased the 2,509-acre Blackwater property in 2010 for $3 million, with $1.5 million of that funded through grants. The Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation were also involved in assisting with the negotiations.

The purchase was part of a deal between the county and the Nature Conservancy to preserve ecologically sensitive land running about 5.5 miles from Broadwater to Proctor’s Bridge Roads in northwestern Isle of Wight County. It was also purchased to protect significant drinking water resources. 

However, part of the deed agreement also allowed the previous owner, Goodwood Virginia LLC, to restrict public access to certain areas for the next four decades, or until it finishes cutting timber, if it considers the restrictions necessary. 

In 2011, the county began developing a master plan for the property that included hiking and equestrian trails. So far, no development has occurred.  {/mprestriction}