Regional environmental groups are trying to rally opposition to a development proposed along scenic cliffs overlooking the Rappahannock River in the midst of a wildlife refuge.

The Richmond County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Oct. 8 on whether to accept the recommendation of the county Planning Commission to rezone almost 1,000 acres along Fones Cliffs for a development that would include as many as 700 homes, a lodge, restaurant, equestrian center and championship golf course.
The tract in question is along a stretch of the river that includes sections of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which has sought to protect Fones Cliff for years from various development proposals.

The land is owned by the Diatomite Corporation of America, which has argued to county residents that its development would produce far more tax revenue than land owned by the government or the land in its present undeveloped use.

Rob Smith, an attorney for the corporation, told the planning commission earlier this year that the resort and residential development would “celebrate the history and culture of the Northern Neck.”

The land runs roughly a mile along the chalky-colored cliffs that rise more than 100 feet above the tidal river just west of Tappahannock.  A series of steep ravines slice through the densely forested land atop the cliffs, draining in wetlands at the river’s edge. A broad marsh on the opposite shore runs almost the same length of the river in Essex County.

The stretch of the river that includes Fones Cliff is also home to the largest East Coast resident population of bald eagles, and is a migratory stop for hundreds more as they transit the Chesapeake Bay region between summer and winter homes.

It is also a part of the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The Rappahannock Indians established seasonal villages atop the cliffs and Smith wrote that Indians let loose a volley of arrows on his exploration team in 1608 to discourage them from exploring farther upstream.

“When you first see Fones Cliffs, you are struck with the completeness of the ecosystem,” said Kathleen Harrigan, executive director of the Friends of the Rappahannock. “Unlike looking at a map, there are no dotted lines separating property boundaries, or county boundaries.”

The golf course community is the second large development proposed for this stretch of the river in Richmond County. In 2014, the county approved a 250-acre subdivision just downriver from the Diatomite land, which would put 45 houses along a half-mile section of the cliffs. The developer, Rappahannock Cliffs, LLC, has built the shell of one house on the land, which is the start of it calls a “conservation community.” Both developments would offer community piers for residents’ boats, though the Virginia Marine Resources Commission last summer approved only a fraction of the pier space proposed by Rappahannock Cliffs.

The possibility of two Fones Cliffs developments has stirred strong feelings and increasingly harsh rhetoric that has shown up in the local papers — and can be heard around the county in convenience stores and other gathering places.

Diatomite says that federally owned refuge land (almost 5 percent of the county) generates no tax revenue, and land in conservation easements (another 3 percent) provides barely $5 per acre in real estate taxes. It says that when completed, its proposed development would generate $2,500 per acre in tax revenue.

Joe McCauley, who was refuge manager at Rappahannock for 10 years before becoming a realty officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Northeast Region, said he’s disheartened to see the current divisiveness in the county surrounding the proposed developments. “For years, we have always felt like we were working to complement what the county was trying to do.”

The refuge, he said, attracts birdwatchers, paddlers and others who come for the natural beauty and rural character.

McCauley said the service had an agreement to purchase the land for more than a year, but couldn’t come up with the funding.

The possibility of losing one of the last undeveloped stretches along the river to the proposed Fones Resort and Spa has galvanized conservation and land preservationists into a coordinated effort to work toward saving what Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, calls, “a jewel of the Chesapeake Bay.”

It is working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Friends of the Rappahannock, local land trusts and other organizations to protect Fones Cliff.

Dunn recognizes the county’s need for economic development, but hopes the residents and their leaders will recognize that they have a national treasure along the banks of the Rappahannock.

“If we can’t save this place, our kids and grandkids will lose,” Dunn said. “Years from now they will either say we had engaged and thoughtful leadership that protected this place, or they will say, ‘What were they thinking?’”