Paddle up the Rappahannock River from the Chesapeake Bay, to where the river narrows as it takes a westward turn, and you’ll stumble onto the scene of a battle. More than four centuries ago, explorer Capt. John Smith encountered a not-so-warm welcome from the Rappahannock people here as they volleyed arrows from the 100-foot-heights of Fones Cliffs, which form a 4-mile bank along the river.
Today, those cliffs have become the setting of a grueling, modern-day clash — unfolding for more than a decade between conservation groups and the private landowners who have new visions for the cliffs’ future.
Fones Cliffs have all of the makings of a conservation fairytale, perhaps without the happy ending. Their forested backdrop is home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the country along a stretch of river that looks as breathtaking today as it did when Native Americans called it home. The land in question has been called a “crown jewel” of the Chesapeake region, one that would fit snugly into the existing network of conserved acreage making up the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a “string of pearls” spanning 9,000 acres along the river.
Despite what they saw as a strong case for conservation, advocates were not able to convince local decision makers. The Richmond County Board of Supervisors, in 2012 and 2015, rezoned one cliff property and then another to allow for development. County officials saw the projects as a revenue generator for a rural locality, where some view land conservation as doing more harm than good by taking real estate off the tax roll.
If a pair of projects comes to fruition, the dramatic cliffside setting would become a selling point for a total of 250 homes and twice as many multifamily units. On one property, a luxury, 18-hole golf resort and lodge would be the centerpiece, including a spa, restaurant and shops, covering 1,000 acres. On another, a 45-home “conservation community” is planned for a portion of the cliffs that already has the only house visible from the river. (A third tract of more than 1,000 acres abutting the cliffs is owned by Northern Neck Lumber Co., a timber company that has not expressed plans to develop the property.)Even though the future of Fones Cliffs rests squarely in the hands of private owners, the effort to protect what remains isn’t over.
Before joining the Chesapeake Conservancy in 2016, Joe McCauley worked for more than 30 years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he managed the expansion of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge from 3,500 acres to more than 8,700 acres. The agency has drafted contracts to purchase each of the major Fones Cliffs properties in the past, but they were ultimately deserted — in two cases, the owner declined the offering price; the other owner grew tired of the long, complicated purchase process.
“For me, it’s been a 15-year saga,” McCauley said. “So many groups have tried to bring it across the finish line for a long time, which speaks to just how important this site is.”
Environmental groups are keeping an eagle’s eye on the developments, particularly after the largest one started off with environmental violations late last year. And some hope that the landowners could reconsider conservation, especially if the developments don’t pan out as promised.
All was quiet on the cliffs for nearly two years after the rezoning of the largest, 1,000-acre parcel. Sold in early 2017 to the Virginia True Corp. for eventually building the golf resort and subdivision, it had appeared that no action would be taken until the next set of permits and plans were approved.
But, in November, birdwatchers reported seeing heavy machinery above the cliffs and smoke rising from the property.
After investigating, the county found that Virginia True had illegally cleared more than 13 acres of trees in a long swath, leaving just a narrow buffer of foliage on the cliff’s edge. A rainstorm was forecasted for the following week, and the erosion that many feared could be associated with the project now seemed inevitable. Unhindered by trees or grass, rainwater could pick up speed and sediment on its way to the cliffs, composed of crumbly diatomaceous soils known for their instability as much as their beauty.
The county issued a stop work order at the end of November after realizing that the clearing took place without approval and without the proper permits. Four months later, after inspecting the site for a third time at the end of March, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found the project was still not in compliance with state law and issued a second notice of violation along with a consent order and fines.
DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said at the beginning of April that “details regarding penalties and corrective action are confidential during this stage,” but Virginia law allows for penalties of up to $32,500 for each day of each specified violation and additional civil penalties of up to $100,000.
The DEQ inspector’s report states that control measures installed to prevent sediment-laden runoff from leaving the site were “minimally effective,” with silt fencing missing or in need of maintenance. Straw was being sparsely applied the day of the inspection to cover seed that had recently been spread on barren soil, the report states.
While Virginia’s 1988 Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act calls for a 100-foot buffer between development and the river in sensitive areas, those regulations have been interpreted to allow for construction along the cliffs. Technically, their 100-foot height from the water meets the buffer requirement. But some have argued that runs afoul of the spirit of the law, and erosion experts have suggested that development be set back even farther than 100 feet from the cliff’s edge.
Peggy Sanner, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia assistant director and senior attorney, said her organization will continue to “be very vigilant” to ensure the violations are adequately addressed. She sees the required environmental permits as key protections that cannot be overlooked.
“No hidden secrets here, but we have a very energized community that would very much support our litigating a case where there’s a violation we think is significant that hasn’t been protected against,” Sanner said.
Richmond County is among several counties on Virginia’s Northern Neck that chose not to regulate stormwater on projects that disturb more than one acre and instead pass the responsibility for regulating larger projects on to the state. The county does, however, manage the project’s sediment and erosion control plans, which were still being reviewed at the beginning of April.
Across the river in Essex County, the DEQ has issued fines to another project that did not have the proper stormwater controls in place before it began construction. In February, heavy rains left muddy water gushing off the 200-acre site, where solar panels are being installed to feed Dominion Energy’s grid, and into aptly named Muddy Gut Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock River.
Richard Moncure, tidal river steward for Friends of the Rappahannock, said the two cases point to gaps in the permitting process for rural localities. Having sediment wash into the Rappahannock River unhindered is particularly frustrating for a region where forested buffers grow thick along the edges of farmland to prevent such runoff.
“Again, we depended on the state to do the permitting and it was a total mess. Everybody was saying, ‘I thought you were going to handle that part,’” Moncure said.
Rob Smith, a Northern Neck native and lawyer who was until recently a longtime agent for Virginia True, originally dismissed the county’s stop work order over the tree clearing as “much ado about nothing.” He said he thought he had permission from the county to conduct the work before it began and called the situation a miscommunication.
Richmond County Administrator Morgan Quicke acknowledged that there had been some misunderstanding between Smith and the county. But, Quicke said, he was “not happy” that illegally clearing land was the first step of a project he has championed.
By the end of March, Smith was no longer working as the agent on the Virginia True project. Lawyer and Virginia State Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland County, was listed as the agent for the Virginia True property on state documents as of the beginning of April.
Stuart is considered a leader in the Northern Neck on conservation issues and was awarded the Virginia League of Conservation Voters’ legislative leadership award in 2017. Stuart could not be reached for comment.
Jeff Howeth, a professional engineer based in Tappahannock, VA, who’s worked with Virginia True in the past, said he was recently hired to help get the site back into compliance with state and local laws. He said the project is getting the permits to complete the work that will stem erosion from the site, and it’s going as quickly as possible.
“There’s a reason you try to do this stuff upfront rather than trying to do it in arrears,” he said of the fines the project is now facing.
When asked if he was brought in to essentially clean up Virginia True’s site, Howeth said the owners “would much rather have this project back to where it said it was going, which is an environmentally sensitive project.”
“When things do happen, the integrity of the people is in how fast they can right what occurred,” Howeth said. “These folks are moving along at a reasonably quick pace, based on the experience that I’ve had.”
Quicke and others still see the golf course resort as a potential boon for Richmond County, an opportunity to add $300 million in real estate value — and $2 million in county revenue — to the tax rolls, should the full project be completed. In contrast, the federal government doesn’t pay real estate taxes on the nearly 6,000 acres of land in the county that’s a part of the wildlife refuge, Moncure said.
“A lot of people in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula feel like the state wants these properties over here to be like park lands, but they don’t want to give us the revenue to
be able to operate,” he said. “It can be a drain.”
Quicke, an avid golfer who keeps a pitching wedge leaned against one corner of his office, was an early convert to the concept of an upscale golf course in town, though the zoning decision to allow it was ultimately made by the Board of Supervisors.
“The last thing I want to see is a project the county approves on such a special piece of property go derelict or bankrupt,” he said. “I want it done right.”
‘I know how to lose’
Moncure said his approach to protecting the cliffs and the river has had to evolve since the projects were approved.
“I guess I’m a good Virginian,” said Moncure, whose family came to the commonwealth 13 generations ago. “I know how to lose.”
“Tying ourselves to a tree to oppose a decision that’s already been made,” he said, “doesn’t allow us to keep a seat at the table.”
Instead, Moncure keeps in touch with the project’s proponents who, in a county of 9,000 people, are easy to run into at The Daily, a coffee shop next to the local newspaper office.
Before taking the job in Tappahannock as river steward, Moncure worked at his family’s seafood restaurant in Fredericksburg, The Happy Clam. Over the years, he saw that the river and the Chesapeake Bay weren’t producing what they used to, and he wanted to do his part.
“I know what a resource this is,” Moncure said, piloting his boat up the Rappahannock River toward Fones Cliffs.
“I’ve seen what the river can do when it provides and we embrace it, and to see us turning away from it — when the darn thing still has a pulse,” he said, pausing. “You can sense the frustration in my voice.”
On a chilly day in late March, the osprey had returned to this stretch of the Rappahannock, giving the eagles a seasonal boost in competition for food. But, as the river narrowed and the cliffs rose tall on one side, the eagles reappeared in their roosts.
Moncure remembers navigating this stretch of the river as a kid and imagining the Rappahannock people appearing, arrows in hand, among the trees clinging to the cliff’s edge. He also remembers returning after a three-year stint overseas with the Peace Corps to find that the view he remembered had changed.
A house on a cliff
Virginia True is not the first developer to plan rows of structures along the tree-lined cliffs, and it won’t be the first to build one, either.
Terrell Bowers bought the 250-acre property next to Virginia True’s in 2002. The blue house he started to build as a weekend getaway for his family, including four school-age children at the time, is still the only structure along the four miles of cliffs. But those children are now adults, and the house was never finished.
What looks like a home from the water — a ghost from Fones Cliffs’ future — is an empty shell. A stack of the same rough-hewn planks that make up the floor, harvested from an old gymnasium at the University of Virginia, lean against a wall near a center staircase, as though the house were still under active construction. The only furniture in the cavernous room is a table with a few chairs near a sturdy fireplace, the main source of heat since construction stopped in 2006.
That’s the year Bowers got his first offer from a developer and tried to rezone the property, a request that was vehemently opposed by residents and eventually denied by the county.
“I didn’t want to build anymore if I was going to sell it, so I just stopped,” said Bowers, who moved from Richmond to Charleston, SC, years ago.
Before his first rezoning attempt, Bowers said he was trying to conserve his property through an easement. But, amid a booming real estate market in the early 2000s, the county changed its zoning laws to reduce the number of houses permitted on agricultural acres. Bowers claims the change caused his property to lose so much value that any assessment for an easement or sale for conservation purposes would have made the arrangement financially unacceptable. By rezoning his property to allow for more development, Bowers hoped to raise his property value so he could sell it to conservation groups on agreeable terms.
It took another five years and a tense rezoning battle before Bowers won approval for a different development project, Rappahannock Cliffs, a 45-home “riverfront conservation community” that would set aside three-quarters of the property for forests and open spaces while bringing 22 homes to the cliffs. The other homes would not be visible from the cliffs but scattered throughout the woods surrounding an open, grassy area, according to the plans.
Those who have followed Fones Cliffs and its proposed developments over the years like to speculate about Bowers’ intentions for the property. For more than a decade, he has said he would like to sell his land to federal conservation programs — but he is also actively shopping his 45-home plan to developers.
Bowers also had draft contracts to sell the property to the neighboring Virginia True project as recently as the fall of 2017. Between 2008 and 2013, around the time Bowers was working to get his property rezoned, he contributed a total of $4,500 to election campaigns for Sen. Stuart, who is now representing Virginia True.
“I guess at this point, I want to sell and move on,” said Bowers, who said he feels ostracized by residents who opposed his project during the rezoning process. “My druthers would be for it to be conserved, but I am not an anti-development person. I’m sensitive to the environment, but I don’t think putting 22 houses on this cliff is going to destroy the river or the Chesapeake Bay.”
Bowers said he met as recently as March with U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman — who lives in nearby Montross and has called Fones Cliffs a “high priority conservation site” that he’d like to see added to the refuge — to discuss selling his land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That same month, Bowers said he was heading to Washington, DC, to meet with developers interested in his subdivision plans.
Some in the conservation community have wondered whether Bowers is as interested in conservation as he is in selling his property to the highest bidder.
“He’s playing a little bit of a different game than we’ve ever played in this region,” Moncure said. “When we talked [in the past] about putting land into conservation, it wasn’t to get the highest value. The highest value is in keeping this beautiful river the way it has been.”
Though county decision makers have said they don’t see the value these natural spaces add to their ledgers, their brochures say otherwise.
Richmond County is “a place where the morning coffee comes with a view of eagles and osprey and where tonight’s seafood special is whatever takes your bait,” says a pamphlet with young woman fishing pictured on the cover, “where traditions are more important than trends.”
That’s why McCauley and others haven’t given up and are “doing everything we can to preserve as much as we can.”
“We remain hopeful,” he said, “that they might change their minds.”