VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — It was an orange sign Conner Clifton noticed while cleaning up trash several weeks ago that brought him to tears.
“I didn’t know what to do. It’s like coming home and seeing your front door kicked in,” he said.
The sign Clifton, 34, saw was advertising for a conditional use permit for a new car dealership location on a little more than three acres of woodland at 3736 Sentara Way in Virginia Beach.
But “woods” is only what one can see from the road. A few steps in, you’ll find what Clifton says has been his labor of love for nearly 20 years: Thrashmore Woods.
Clifton said he was 14 when he first discovered the property that had several trails carved through it.
You won’t find it labeled on a map. Sandwiched between the Checkered Flag car dealership and the Villages of Rosemont assisted living facility between Interstate 264 to the north and Sentara Way to the south, he said its reputation has only grown among the bicycle motocross (BMX) community since he became involved.
“I helped build all of this here,” Clifton said pointing to what is now four different routes of wooden ramps and jumps winding through the tall trees.
Clifton said the trails, which include both items for beginners and experienced riders, are made mostly from dirt and clay harvested by hand on the land. Clifton said he can’t count the number of hours he spent digging out drainage ditches to keep the course from becoming waterlogged. He also doesn’t want to think about all the money in tarps and plastic purchased to try and keep the rain from ruining his work.
“A lot of hurt back,” Clifton laughed.
Clifton, who works construction during the day, said he did come up with the name. “Thrash” is used as a slang term for doing something intense in the skateboarding and biking communities.
“You got Mt. Trashmore, this is Thrashmore,” Clifton said. “It’s about having fun in the woods with your friends,”
Clifton said on weeknights and weekends, you’ll find between 20 and 30 bikers and spectators out on the trails. That includes some who have competed in BMX competitions, even the Olympics.
Clifton has appointed himself as the unofficial caretaker, locking the trails up to keep inexperienced riders from hurting themselves with nobody present. The trails are marked with rules and safety notices posted throughout the property.
“Everyone must wear a helmet and clean up after themselves,” Clifton said.
His friends have described it as one of the “best-kept secrets in Virginia Beach.”
Problem is, it was so secret, that the city, and possibly the property owner, didn’t know it was there.
Since 1996, the property has been owned by the Virginia Beach-based Runnymede Corporation.
Winners Property, LLC. — parent company of Checkered Flag — is looking to buy the property in order to build a 12,000-square-foot dealership and parking lot.
At the meeting of the Virginia Beach Planning Commission on Wednesday, Bill Garrington, an attorney representing Checkered Flag said the city planning department didn’t know the trails were on the land.
He said recreational parks such as that should have a conditional use permit themselves. This one does not.
He expressed frustration that Clifton and others were opposing the development because of what it would mean for the bike trails.
“How do you get mentally involved in something you don’t own?” Garrington said. “You’re on somebody else’s property. If I’m not mistaken when I was growing up, that was called trespassing.”
Garrington said he did not know if there was ever a verbal agreement between Runnymede and the bikers at one time.
Monday, Matthew Fine, president of Runnymede, confirmed there never was.
“They have been trespassing on that land for years,” Fine said. “Several times a year we would go out and put up ‘no trespassing’ signs but we believe they would be promptly ripped down.”
Clifton and another user of the trails tried to plead their case. A Change.org petition already has more than 1,600 signatures.
“This is one of the last wooded areas in Virginia Beach,” Clifton said.
However, a majority of commissioners acknowledged the land was not Clifton’s and voted to recommend City Council approve the project.
A vote in front of Virginia Beach City Council hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Clifton maintains he never knew who owned the property and in all the years, nobody had asked them to leave.
“There’s never been a ‘No trespassing’ sign,” Clifton said.
While he maintains he wants to continue the fight. He also acknowledges that without ownership of the land, he has little ground to stand on.
He just hopes he can find another plot of land that would welcome what he has done.
“It’s our spot. It’s our rec center,” Clifton said. “Friendships are made here, people learn how to respect one another and that will all be lost. It’s a lot more than just a set of jumps in the woods.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Runnymede. WAVY-TV regrets the error.