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Off-road vehicle course near Crozet under investigation

Albemarle County has ordered the operators of an off-road vehicle course near Crozet to stop holding events in which four-wheel-drive vehicles attempt to cross huge boulders and other obstacles.

The group Rock Crawlers for the Preservation of Future Access has held events for several years on land owned by Joseph T. Henley III.
 
“We have concluded that the activity that they have done in the past is a violation of zoning because it is not a use that is allowed by-right,” said Amelia McCulley, the county’s zoning administrator.
 
Local officials are trying to determine what activities could happen under a special-use permit and whether conservation easements on the rural land prohibit the activity altogether.
 
“The trails wind around the property following creek beds, over large boulders and through the woods,” reads a description of the course found on a North Carolina-based website for 4×4 vehicles.
 
The land is in the watershed of the Beaver Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water for Crozet. The property is also in the county’s Sugar Hollow agricultural-forest district.
 
“There is enough elevation change to provide some fun hill climbs, and enough water in the creeks to make rocks slippery,” the description continues.
 
The activity has attracted the concern of one local official who asked the county’s zoning department to investigate once she learned of the club’s existence.
 
“I am concerned about stream disturbance, or rock disturbance, in the headwaters of the feeder stream to Beaver Creek Reservoir,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.
 
The Rock Crawlers had been planning to hold the Spring Crozet Cheap Truck Challenge earlier this month but decided against it after zoning officials began their investigation.
 
“They told us that they canceled the event for club members and were going to keep at it at a word-of-mouth friend level,” McCulley said.
 
However, zoning officials were not present to monitor compliance.
 
McCulley said the group can apply for a special-use permit.
 
“There’s a provision for a club special-use permit,” McCulley said. “They expressed an interest in knowing what they could do by-right. If they want to continue what they did in the past, we could go over the special-use permit.”
 
However, the property is also under a conservation easement jointly held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Albemarle County Public Recreation Facilities Authority.
 
“At this time, we are still working with the county authority on making a joint determination on the issue,” said Brian Fuller, the VOF’s assistant director for stewardship.
 
The Henleys, the VOF and the recreation authority entered into the easement in 2002. The document describes the land as “primarily sloping pasture land” and prohibits grading, blasting or earth removal. Industrial or commercial activities are also banned, with a few exceptions.
 
“No commercial recreational use shall be allowed on the property,” reads the easement.
 
Fuller said his group will defer a decision until after the recreation authority’s board of directors discusses the issue at a meeting April 11. A ruling could set a precedent statewide.
 
“This specific type of activity has not come up before on all our properties,” Fuller said.
 
The VOF holds 64,240 acres on 350 easements in Albemarle. The organization has easements on more than 647,000 acres across Virginia.
 
Neither the Henleys nor club members responded to requests for comment for this story.
 
However, McCulley said club representatives were cooperative during a recent inspection.
 
“They showed us an area they would go through and you can’t easily tell that a vehicle has been through there,” McCulley said. “It’s not like it’s changed the landscape. There’s more evidence of cattle on the property than vehicles.”
 
McCulley said there would be no fines at this time, but if they continued in violation of zoning there would be fines followed by a possible injunction.