Owner of French chateau blocks access to walkers

A row over the closure of a footpath by the new American owner of a chateau in south-west France illustrates the often touchy relationship between property owners and walkers over access to their land.

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Walkers found the path, which features on a departmental map of footpaths published to encourage rural tourism, blocked by a chained and padlocked gate.

Before the new owner arrived, the gate, which is in the chateau’s grounds, had been left unlocked, with a simple notice asking walkers to shut it behind them.

New signs forbidding entry have been put up where the footpath moves from the public domain on to the chateau’s grounds, something that is also illegal.

The Château de la Grènerie, at Salon-la-Tour in Corrèze, was sold after the death in 2011 of previous owner Thor Johannessen, a Norwegian millionaire who owned a chain of home decoration shops.

Mayor Jean-Claude Chauffour told Connexion: “It is not as if it is something the new owner did not know about, as it is clearly written in the act of sale.

“The path cannot just be blocked on the whim of someone deciding to take the law into their own hands.”

The new owner is Chad Steelberg, a 48-year-old Californian, who made a fortune with his brother through internet and radio advertising, and who is chief executive of artificial intelligence company Veritone Inc.

Reports say that he ordered the gates to be locked after walkers left the path and went to peer through the chateau windows.

Mr Chauffour has asked the district attorney (procureur de la République) to take up the matter and is waiting to hear if the matter will go to court.

He has had “cordial” talks with the owner of the chateau, and has sent bailiffs to formally record the situation. “If nothing is done by the owner, and so far we have had no moves on his part, I will ask the court for legal authorisation to remove the obstacles that block the path,” he said. “The law is quite clear.”

Walkers held a demonstration outside the chateau, walking up to the gate, which was unlocked for the occasion, and singing the national anthem.

Attempts to contact Mr Steelberg by email and telephone have had no response.

In rural France there are two main sorts of footpaths: rural paths (chemins ruraux) and operating trails (sentiers d’exploitation), with different rules for each.

Rural paths are the ones where there are most likely to be conflicts. Although they often run over private property, they are deemed to be part of a commune’s common land and must stay open.

The right to use them, and to hunt, was established in the Revolution, in a move that ensured the movement, mainly Paris-based, had countryside support.

Mayors have a duty to ensure rural paths are kept open and have powers to start legal proceedings if needed.

Most chemins ruraux are marked on Institut Géographique National (IGN) maps, famous for their blue covers. The routes can be used by motorbikes, quads and other vehicles, unless the commune has banned them by decree.

Users of vehicles are not allowed to damage rural paths, by driving on them when they are muddy, for example.

Sentiers d’exploitation are private roads or paths which are not part of the communal holding. Many give access to fields or woods and are maintained by the owners.

Conflicts over sentiers d’exploitation, if they cannot be settled in a friendly manner, usually end up in court.

Examples have included the owners of holiday homes complaining that access roads have been blocked. They are sometimes also marked on IGN maps.

When rights of way are discussed in France, it is impossible to ignore the droit de chasse, also inherited from the Revolution, which gives the owner of land the right to hunt on it.

It also means that others can hunt on it, especially if they are pursuing game, unless the owner has officially registered their opposition to hunting and plan, for example, to create a wildlife refuge.

Connexion has an article for subscribers on how to do this at tinyurl.com/rfjx7bv

A guide to footpath signs

Designated footpath signs in France follow a simplified code.

  • To show that you are on the right path, a horizontal straight line, or two horizontal straight lines, are drawn on posts, tree trunks or rocks.
  • When there is a turn to the left or the right, below the horizontal line, a second line with a right-angle “arrow” pointing to the direction to be taken is drawn.
  • To signify that a path is the wrong way for the footpath, a cross is drawn.

Colours too are coded: if the signs are painted in red and white, it shows that the footpath is a grande randonnée (GR), one of the designated long-distance footpaths covering a region or the country itself. Red was chosen because it was the traditional colour used by loggers in France to mark trees, and white because it shows up well at dawn or dusk.

Yellow is used for petites randonnées (PR), which usually follow a loop so walkers start and finish at the same place. Where a path is a shared one, both colours are used.

As often happens in France, local variations occur.

Many communautés de communes have started using their own metal signs to show footpaths, which are often large and conspicuous, in an attempt to promote their own tourism brands.