A sign at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area informs visitors of the county's ordinance prohibiting bicycling at the area, but the city passed an ordinance in December 2016 allowing bicycling on designated trails. Credit: Credit: Tim Dodson, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Albemarle County is refuting the city of Charlottesville’s counterclaim in an ongoing legal dispute over which jurisdiction’s rules apply to recreational activities at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. The 980-acre property is owned by the city but located within the county.

The controversy stems from an ordinance passed by the Charlottesville City Council in December 2016 that would permit bicycling and jogging on designated trails within the natural area. Prior to this decision, hiking and birdwatching were the only activities allowed on trails.

Before this ordinance was passed, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the council, asking the city to “indefinitely defer action” on changing the rules at Ragged Mountain because the county’s existing regulations for the reservoir on the property do not allow biking.

Supervisors wrote that the regulations are intended “to prevent pollution of the public water supply.” They also referred to a section of state law that allows localities to extend their regulatory powers over land they own in other jurisdictions, but it notes that “no ordinances in conflict with an ordinance of the jurisdiction wherein the property is located shall be enacted.”

Councilors ultimately approved the new ordinance and later approved a plan in April that included hiker-only and shared-use trails.

In response to the county’s concerns, the city offered to resolve the dispute in binding arbitration, but the county rejected this proposal and filed a lawsuit in Charlottesville Circuit Court on April 20. The county’s suit asks the court to declare the city ordinance void and issue an injunction to prohibit the city from allowing members of the public to ride bikes at Ragged Mountain in violation of county code.

The city filed its response to the suit in June, alleging that Albemarle’s regulation on activities at the natural area “is not rationally related to the prevention of pollution of water in the reservoir” and that Albemarle’s code “constitutes an unconstitutional exercise of the county’s police power.”

The city filed a counterclaim, asking the court to uphold the city’s ordinance and declare, among other things, that the county’s regulation is arbitrary and the city’s ordinance is not inconsistent with the county under state law.

The counterclaim also alleges that Albemarle’s code “denies the city due process and equal protection of the law.”

The city included in its filing a December 2016 letter from William Mawyer, the executive director of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, that said the authority did not expect “any significant additional water quality impact” from biking, in addition to other recreational uses, on the trails.

In a demurrer filed July 14, the county’s attorneys argue that the city has failed to provide facts sufficient enough to support its various claims for declaratory relief.

“The counterclaim is required to provide factual allegations about the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors’ decision-making process to establish that a legislative action by that body is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and not rationally related to its objective,” the county’s demurrer reads. “The counterclaim does not contain factual allegations about the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors’ consideration, deliberation or enactment of Albemarle County Code §11-303, including any evidence the Board of Supervisors considered or relied upon in enacting the ordinance.”

The part of Albemarle’s code in question was adopted in 1981.

In addressing the equal protection claims, the county argues the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the relationship between political subdivisions, like the county and the city, and that, even if it did apply, “the defendants still do not provide sufficient factual allegations to state a claim for relief.” The county’s filing says the five reservoirs in the county are treated the same because bicycling is not permitted at any of them.

The filing also says the city insufficiently argued for relief based on a denial of due process.

The county is asking the court to dismiss the city’s counterclaim.

City Attorney Craig Brown and a city spokesperson did not return requests for comment on the county’s recent filing.

As this lawsuit works its way through the system, local cyclists are frustrated about the lack of clarity over what uses are permitted at the area.

“The answer to whether or don’t we can ride, run or jog out there is up for discussion, so as a consequence … we have told people, ‘You know what, it’s easier and better that we just hold tight and let this process go through,’” said Sam Lindblom, president of the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club.

CAMBC represents about 400 cyclists, and several of its members had advocated for shared-use trails at Ragged Mountain during the city’s public engagement process about recreational uses at the natural area.

“We think that people should not ride there until it’s clear,” Lindblom said. “We’re focusing our advocacy and trail-work efforts on other places.”

Dede Smith served on City Council between 2012 and 2015 and was involved with the creation of the natural area in the 1990s through her work with the Ivy Creek Foundation. Citing the collaboration required between the two localities in creating the natural area, she said she doesn’t think the city has the authority to trump the county’s ordinance. She also said she thinks there could be unintended long-term consequences for the reservoir’s water quality by changing the types of recreational activities allowed at the natural area.

Smith said she thinks City Council’s passage of the new rules at the end of last year was unnecessarily confrontational.

“They acted before they really had any negotiation or conversation with the county,” she said. “That was surprising because there are some really serious joint city-county decisions that need to be made that are so much more important.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 6.