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Interviewee: Lewis L. Lawrence

Role: Executive Director, Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission

Date of Interview: February 20, 2015

Collection: Preserving the Working Waterfront

Click on the link below to view the interview.

Lewis L. Lawrence Interview

Abstract: Lewis L. Lawrence, Executive Director, Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, was interviewed to document the Commission's experience in establishing the country's first Public Access Authority. The Public Access Authority was established to identify, acquire and manage water access opportunities in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Mr. Lawrence discusses the history of public access in Virginia and the increasing conflicts among users. He describes the establishment of the Public Access Authority and how its role has evolved from researching ownership of public roads to acquiring and managing over 1000 acres of coastal properties for public access.

Transcript: Most of the transportation system in the Chesapeake Bay prior to probably the Civil War was water-based economy. Goods and services moved up now in the bay; there was a network of steamboat landings, all across the Chesapeake Bay. At these steamboat landings was–were the center of commerce. In 1933 the Byrd Act was a piece of State legislation that transferred all of the highway infrastructures back to the State. So the need for these localized steamboat landings didn't matter anymore because we were able to move goods and services with rail and the interstate system. And you went through a period of 1970s up until we became involved with it, with all of these public access portals and public footprints just disappearing. They were lost to time. So we've had a not only a cultural shift but also a societal shift at the same time, where how people interact with the water is very different.

At that same time you had a large shift in traditionally–owned properties that may have had these steamboat wharfs there: somebody else bought them. And they would put chains across the end of the road. So you remember what used to be the center of commerce, you may have a road that would go through a farm and that was a public road that pre–1933 hooked to a massive wharf infrastructure that's there. Well the wharf infrastructure goes away. But that public's right to use that road still exists, so there is a portion of society that remembers that. And so they have always driven down, you know, through these dirt roads or public roadways to get to the water. Churches would go down and do baptisms that were there. They were multi–purpose public access portals.

So imagine what would happen if somebody's family has been going down to these roadways for 200 years and they go down there next Sunday and there's a chain across the end of the road. That's not a warm and fuzzy feeling. People don't like that at all. So citizens started complaining to their elected officials; 'hey how come I can't go down there anymore?' The homeowner says, 'well I bought this waterfront plantation. I own this. I don't want you down there anymore.' The public was saying, 'but that's not fair.' And it's not a question of fairness; it's the question of what are your legal rights that are there?

So the Matthews County Board of Supervisors had to bring suit against this landowner saying, 'no; you can't do that. You can't step on the public's right to use this public roadway to get to the water.' And at the end of the day the Matthews County Board of Supervisors prevailed. The State Supreme Court said, 'absolutely not; there is a public interest here. Once a roadway has been worked with public dollars that public right–of–way continues in perpetuity forever. So you can't take it away.'

Well growing up here, you know, I knew in working at the PDC that we had over 300 of these road endings all across the Middle Peninsula, across the six–county region. I knew that our local governments couldn't litigate their way out of 300 of these road endings; it just–that's bad public policy. So I went to our delegate, Delegate Harvey Morgan, who's now retired. Harvey and I talked about it and the directions that Harvey gave to me here—and at that time I was a planner, you know, not the Agency Director–was, find another way.

The one that we finally settled on was to create a special unit of government called a Public Access Authority or in our case the Middle Peninsula Chesapeake Bay Public Access Authority. It's a single purpose entity; so it is a political subdivision empowered by the General Assembly, which gets back to that Dylan Rule thing, where the General Assembly says, 'this makes good public policy sense. We're going to allow our local governments to create this special unit of government.

So with a stroke of a pen, you know, the Governor signed off and in 2003 the Public Access Authority was born. It came into existence. The General Assembly said, 'if local governments declare that there is a need for this special unit of government to exist let it be said; let it be done.' So we went back to our local governments and said, 'you've been given the power to create this special unit of government. Do you want to do this?' And our local government said, 'yeah; let's do this. This makes good sense.' So it became the first in the country; it was a single purpose entity whose only mission was to deal with public water access issues. How do you get from the water to the land and from the land to the water? So that became how the Public Access Authority was created.

We became so successful at dealing with these very unique problems either on the policy side or on the infrastructure side that our portfolio began to grow. Now the Access Authority has you know almost 1,000 acres of property scattered all over nine jurisdictions that offer up endless recreational opportunities that are out there.

This collection is part of an effort to document oral histories that focus on the application of specific tools for sustaining working waterfronts across the country. To learn more about the Preserving the Working Waterfront Oral History project, click here.