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Some background for context:

I was out on a bike ride in Loudoun County, Virginia last weekend, following a GPS route I got from a local bike shop. While traveling down a gravel road, a local motorist rolled up on me to tell me (somewhat menacingly) that I was on a private road and needed to turn around. Even though it was a through road, and I was about equidistant from either end, I politely thanked him for letting me know and turned around to follow him back to the main road (I lived in Montana long enough to learn not to piss off oversized-pickup-truck-driving locals).

I hadn't noticed it on the way in, but there was a small sign attached to the road-sign post reading, "Private road, not publicly maintained." It was small, close to the ground, and almost obscured by some tall grass. Very easy to miss by someone looking up at a road sign. If there is any chance that riding on such private roads could lead to a trespassing charge, I'd like to know so I can be more careful to avoid them when planning future routes (though I haven't found a way to distinguish them on a map or GPS yet).

I've found a few generic but contradictory definitions about what constitutes a private road and whether or not they are generally open for public use, but it seems like laws may vary quite a bit between states and especially in other countries. So, I'm really here in search of information relevant to Virginia roads in particular.

Specifically, is there a default status regarding public travel on private Virginia roads? If so, what measures (if any) are necessary and sufficient to inform and/or restrict access for public road users? And could someone be charged/convicted for trespassing by traveling on such a road without permission?

I've found some related definitions on the state (commonwealth?) website, but nothing that seems to cover this situation specifically. For example, the term "Private Road Open to Public Travel" comes up in a lot of Virginia highway statutes, with the following definition pulled from a Virginia DOT manual on traffic control devices, which matches the definition given by the US Federal Highway Administration.

Private Road Open to Public Travel—private toll roads and roads (including any adjacent sidewalks that generally run parallel to the road) within shopping centers, airports, sports arenas, and other similar business and/or recreation facilities that are privately owned, but where the public is allowed to travel without access restrictions. Roads within private gated properties (except for gated toll roads) where access is restricted at all times, parking areas, driving aisles within parking areas, and private grade crossings shall not be included in this definition.

Since none of the examples provided match my situation of a private country road, I'm guessing this definition might not apply. But to me, the highlighted section seems to imply that a private road must be on a gated property or otherwise have access restricted at all times to be excluded as a "Private Road Open to Public Travel." Couldn't find a legal definition for "access restriction" anywhere, but I suppose a small sign near ground could be an attempt at restriction?

I will admit that after detouring a few miles to get back to my planned route, I ended up riding many miles on several different private roads that day. Most of them had much more prominently displayed and explicitly worded signage, including phrases like "no public entry" or "no through traffic" which I repeatedly ignored. What's interesting to me is that some of those private roads had businesses on them (I guess you're not through-traffic if you stop to have beer), and all of them were through roads connecting well-traveled public routes.

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  • As you correctly note, of course, the real question is which private roads are not open to public travel and under what conditions. Virginia distinguishes between different classes of private roads.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 14, 2021 at 21:21
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    You're looking at the wrong laws, you're looking at laws pertaining to roads. Look at laws pertaining to trespassing. Oct 14, 2021 at 21:39
  • In chapter 24, Section 710, states, > The subdivision agent may approve a private road in the rural areas if the subdivision is a family subdivision or a two-lot subdivision and the private road will serve only those lots and will be the sole and direct means of access to a public road.
    – Louis Zhan
    Oct 14, 2021 at 22:48
  • This does not answer the question at all. It shows that it is possible that some roads might be closed to public travel, but it only applies to specific circumstances and only when used.
    – user4657
    Oct 15, 2021 at 0:28
  • Proper funny caption!
    – kisspuska
    Jan 12, 2022 at 16:09

2 Answers 2

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§ 18.2-119. Trespass after having been forbidden to do so; penalties.

If any person without authority of law goes upon or remains upon the lands, buildings or premises of another, or any portion or area thereof, after having been forbidden to do so, either orally or in writing, by the owner, lessee, custodian, or the agent of any such person, or other person lawfully in charge thereof, or after having been forbidden to do so by a sign or signs posted by or at the direction of such persons or the agent of any such person or by the holder of any easement or other right-of-way authorized by the instrument creating such interest to post such signs on such lands, structures, premises or portion or area thereof at a place or places where it or they may be reasonably seen, [...]

Direct from Virginia's code. You are trespassing on a private road in Virginia if:

  • the land the road sits on is owned by a private party
  • the property has a sign telling you that the road is private
  • you are on the road at any point in time
  • you are not on official business for a government agency that gives you immunity from trespassing laws (ie. law enforcement or a process server)

Legally, based on the facts of the question, you were trespassing prior to being engaged by the truck driver. You freely admit that there was a sign, and that you did not see it when you entered the property. Not seeing a "posted" sign is not a defense, in the same way that not seeing a speed limit sign does not excuse you from speeding.

Despite one of the comments to the question, there isn't a distinction in Virginia on "types of private roads" beyond whether the property owner willfully opened the road to public access or not. In the case of a road that has a posted sign, the mere posting of the sign shows clear intent that the road is not open to public use, and trespassing laws apply.

That doesn't mean that not having a sign implies public access, though. A property owner needs to go through a specific process to authorize public use of their road, and doing so does not avail the public from accessing areas beyond the road easement (ie. a subdivision can allow public access to the neighborhood streets, but you can still be trespassed on the sidewalk or other parts of the neighborhood unless those are also explicitely granted for public use)

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Specifically, is there a default status regarding public travel on private Virginia roads?

In Virginia, it is illegal to trespass on private property after being told to leave. This applies regardless of whether the private property happens to have a road on it, or indeed happens to have businesses on it.

Restricted areas may have businesses, and this does not negate the restriction. For example, the FBI academy at Quantico has a gift shop, but this does not mean you are welcome to waltz in without permission.

Your quote about "Private Road Open to Public Travel" clearly refers to things like toll roads, which are maintained by a private person but explicitly open to the public. It's not trying to provide a loophole whereby you may trespass on any private property with impunity, it's stating a simple thing: The owner may declare that anyone is free to come onto their property. This obviously does not apply to a property that's fenced, gated and has a sign saying "private property - no trespassing".

You may be amused (or unamused), however, to learn that there is an exception that allows you to trespass if you are hunting and chasing your prey across property lines.

If so, what measures (if any) are necessary and sufficient to inform and/or restrict access for public road users?

It seems like any of the following is sufficient:

  • Verbally telling you to keep out
  • Posting a sign that says to keep out
  • Painting stripes on trees in a certain way

The nature of the sign is not specified, so I imagine this would be up to the interpretation of the court if you do end up charged.

And could someone be charged/convicted for trespassing by traveling on such a road without permission?

Yes.

I will admit that after detouring a few miles to get back to my planned route, I ended up riding many miles on several different private roads that day.

I'm curious what your logic is in entering property where you are clearly not welcome. Are you assuming that putting a road on private land automatically opens it to the public? Or are you thinking that trespassing is okay if the public road is less pleasant to ride on or less scenic? Or is the idea that since you're "just biking" and not hurting anyone, the trespass doesn't apply to you?

If the private property is truly not well indicated, there is no gate, and the public road transitions to a private one with no indication, it is credible to claim that you got lost and entered by mistake. But note that if the police get calls from several property owners in the same area, about the same cyclist trespassing, it becomes quite a bit less credible.

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    Downvoted for speculating on the motivations of the asker.
    – Mark
    Jun 23, 2022 at 5:25
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    This doesn’t answer the question if the road would actually be private property and trespassing laws apply. It could easily be possible that they do not apply and the person is just making empty threats.
    – Joe W
    Feb 14 at 20:05

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