A landslide on a historically significant stretch of Fones Cliffs in Virginia has sparked debate over whether a developer’s land clearing caused a strip of remaining trees to topple into the water more than 100 feet below.

An aerial photo taken on May 24 shows the proximity of a recent landslide at  Fones Cliffs to an area of land that was cleared of trees in the fall of 2017. River advocates are concerned that the clearing, associated with a proposed luxury golf course development on the property, contributed to severe erosion on the vulnerable, 100-plus-foot  cliffs. (Courtesy of Friends of the Rappahannock)

A swath of the cliffs that form the northeast bank of the Rappahannock River near Warsaw sloughed off into the river early last week after several days of rain. The landslide occurred on the edge of a property where more than 13 acres had been cleared of trees in the fall of 2017 without the required environmental protections in place. Some groups argue that the clearing caused the landslide, but regulators say it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cause at a site where several factors contribute to erosion.

Conservation organizations have spent more than a decade trying to protect the land along the four-mile stretch of cliffs, which have remained largely undeveloped for 400 years and are home to high concentrations of eagles. When a Richmond County board rezoned the property in 2012 and 2015, they vowed to keep a close eye on a pair of projects whose backers said they would be protective of the environment.

Those who oppose the larger of those projects — a 1,000-acre luxury golf course planned by the Virginia True Corp. along the cliff’s edge — were quick to call the landslide evidence that the flawed land clearing process has hastened erosion. County and state officials, as well as shoreline erosion experts, though, said that while the clearing could have contributed to the landslide, more than 10 inches of rain over several days in May might have been too much for the site to absorb regardless of the recent tree loss.

The landslide, covering a 120-footwide section of the cliffs, came to the attention of the Friends of the Rappahannock on May 22, when a local waterman photographed the landslide and sent the image to Richard Moncure, the group’s tidal river steward. The photo showed toppled trees, laying with their crowns in the water at the bottom of a freshly scoured cliff face.

A photo taken on May 22 by a waterman shows the landslide from a portion of the Rappahannock River near Warsaw, VA, in Richmond County. (Courtesy of Friends of the Rappahannock)

“It is no coincidence that the only landslide at Fones Cliffs occurred this week adjacent to the cleared site,” the Friends of the Rappahannock wrote in a press release on May 25.

Accompanying the press release were photos the group took of the site using drones and a small plane soon after the landslide occurred, which show the proximity of the cleared land to the landslide.

Moncure also took guests onto the river to view the erosion first-hand: Richard English, Richmond County’s environmental compliance agent, and Jeff Howeth, an engineer hired by Virginia True to get the property into compliance.

English wrote in a report that the landslide occurred below a section of the property that had been cleared, where runoff can flow in sheets through a 50-foot wide forested area on the cliff’s edge. A portion of the silt fencing that had been erected to prevent runoff in that area failed because it was not designed or required to withstand the high volumes of rain, English wrote in the report.

“The cause of the erosion of the cliffs during these latest rain events cannot simply be pinned down to be completely natural or completely manmade,” he wrote. “The change in the land cover condition most likely did play a factor, it’s just very difficult to say to what extent.”

The county issued a stop work order at the end of November after finding that the property owners had begun clearing trees without attaining the required permits, which would have included measures to prevent runoff and erosion. Virginia True’s owners have been working with contractors since then to erect silt fencing, catch sediment and grow grass on the property to prevent polluted runoff, regulators say.

County administrator Morgan Quicke said that the erosion and sediment control plans for the project, which the county oversees, have been approved, and the stop work order was lifted earlier in May — though additional permits will be required for clearing or construction to take place. The county required the developer to secure a $90,000 letter of credit on the project to ensure the work is performed according to the plans.

An inspection report completed by English on May 24 states that sediment control measures on the site had failed and the problems would need to be corrected by June 6. At that point, the county could issue another stop work order, issue fines of up to $2,500, or require jail time for a misdemeanor, the report states.

Howeth said contractors had completed much of the work required by the report during a couple of dry weather days this week. If the region did get as much as 13 inches of rain in the days before the landslide, as some have estimated, Howeth said he was impressed with how well the erosion measures, which are designed to withstand lesser storms, had fared. Howeth said rainfall totaling 8.8 inches in one day would be considered a 100-year storm for the area.

Howeth did acknowledge that changes in land use could have contributed to the slide but attributed it primarily to soils that had become saturated with rain.

Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said that state inspectors visited the site on May 22 and on May 30 to evaluate conditions.

Regn said the recent rainfall overwhelmed the silt fences in several places, but “we still don’t think it’s a major contributor” to the landslide. Inspectors saw no evidence, for instance, of runoff scouring out large quantities of soil, and they cannot say for sure that the land clearing caused the cliff face to slough off.

The agency had issued two notices of violation to Virginia True by the end of March, the second of which included undisclosed fines and a consent order, after the clearing proceeded without a stormwater management plan. The parties are still working out the terms of that consent order, which will be subject to public comments. Regn said the agency has yet to approve a plan for managing stormwater runoff from the site.

Moncure said he remains concerned that, even if the proper controls are in place to prevent stormwater runoff and erosion while the land is being developed, “a silt fence isn’t a suitable replacement for the forested buffer that had protected that area of the cliffs before the clearing.”   

Michael Vanlandingham is a shoreline engineer with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service, which provides free consultations to landowners looking to prevent erosion. He completed a report for the Virginia True property in January that recommends the property owners either stabilize the cliffs with costly engineered solutions at their base or keep any development 280 feet away from the edge of the cliff and separated by a vegetated buffer.

The shoreline erosion report recommends the setback length be twice the height of the 140-foot bank to prevent erosion, and that stormwater be directed away from the bank with a piping system. The program does not have a regulatory role, but the recommendations come from a team of engineers, biologists and natural resource specialists.

None of the recommended steps were taken before Virginia True cleared land in the fall not far from the cliff’s edge.

Vanlandingham said that Fones Cliffs features some of the steepest banks in Virginia, which will naturally try to erode back to a more stable slope.

“Leaving it in the wooded riparian condition that it was in is probably the best thing you can do, but it’s been in that condition for a long, long time, and it’s still erosive,” Vanlandingham said.

“To stabilize and protect a shoreline, you need to address all the issues that are causing it to be erosive while also keeping in mind the owner’s goals,” he continued. “In the end, he’s the person writing the check to stabilize the property.”

Having a layer of Fones Cliffs slough off is exactly what advocates feared would happen after the land was cleared. Without the proper stormwater controls in place before the trees were removed, rainwater could easily pick up speed and sediment on the sloped landscape. The cliffs are composed of crumbly diatomaceous soils that are known for their instability as much as their orange-and-white beauty.

In their statement, the Friends of the Rappahannock urged officials to enforce existing regulations and bring the property into compliance to “create a level playing field for all land development activities.”

Richard Pemberton, District 4 member of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said in a statement that he is “deeply disappointed” that the project — permitted under a controversial rezoning approved by the board — has resulted in environmental damage.

But even when land clearings are in compliance with existing regulations, heavy rains can cause erosion and runoff that exceeds the capacity of stop-gap measures like silt fencing. That’s especially true for landscapes that are already vulnerable to erosion.

Peter Vogt is a retired geologist who worked for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and lives in Scientists’ Cliffs, a community on a steep shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County, MD. Though the cliffs’ makeup is different, he said a waterlogged month of May contributed to almost two dozen recent landslides of varying scales near his home, including areas that had been stable for more than four decades.

“It just shows that it was a very unusual event,” Vogt said of the weather, “which makes it hard to prove that it may not have happened earlier.”

Timothy B. Wheeler contributed reporting to this article.