A 250-acre property along Virginia’s Fones Cliffs — an area long-contested by developers and conservationists — is now under contract with The Conservation Fund. If plans go smoothly, the land eventually will be preserved as part of a national wildlife refuge.Terrell Bowers' unfinished house sits at the crest of Fones Cliffs on Virginia's Rappahannock River. After pursuing plans to develop the 250-acre property for residential housing, Bowers has accepted an offer to sell the land to The Conservation Fund. (Whitney Pipkin)

The property is one of two contiguous parcels that were slated for development along a 4-mile stretch of the Rappahannock River, valued for its history and wildlife habitat.

Owner Terrell Bowers said in a press release sent to the Bay Journal on Wednesday that “an incredible twist of fate” led him to pivot toward conservation and away from development, including a pending attempt to construct 10-story condominiums on the river's edge.

The announcement comes a few days after land-clearing violations on the adjacent property, owned by Virginia True Corp., were referred to the Virginia Attorney General’s office for potential further legal action.

Heather Richards, The Conservation Fund’s Virginia director and program manager, confirmed Wednesday that the Bowers property is under contract, with a closing date tentatively scheduled for December.

“It’s not done until it’s closed,” she said, but “it is under contract, and we do expect to close by the end of this year.”

The Conservation Fund plans to sell the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so it can be added to the more than 9,000-acre Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Richards confirmed.

The property owned by Bowers, who resides in South Carolina, has been under contract to be conserved in the past under deals that never came to fruition. In 2015, Richmond County officials granted his request to rezone the property to allow for a 45-home “conservation community” on the property.

This rendering shows the 10-story condo design Terrell Bowers hoped to have Richmond County officials approve at a Sept. 10 meeting. He ended up neither attending the meeting nor seeking the approval after accepting an offer to conserve the land instead. (Courtesy of Terrell Bowers)His portion of the cliffs has the only house visible from the river along that stretch, which Bowers began to build after he bought the property as a weekend getaway for his family in 2002. But he stopped construction, leaving the home half-finished, when he began getting offers from both developers and conservation organizations. Those offers include a standing offer from the owner of the neighboring property, Virginia True Corp., whose plans to construct a 1,000-acre luxury golf resort got off on the wrong foot with land-clearing violations in 2017.

During the Bay Journal’s visit to the Bowers property earlier this year, Bowers said he would be ready to make a deal soon.

“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.”

What changed his mind? Bowers wrote that a series of unexpected events — including Hurricane Florence and a nearly stranded wife — contributed to the decision.

Bowers was scheduled to go before the Richmond County Planning Commission on Sept. 10 to present his conceptual plan for rezoning his “Rappahannock Cliffs” development to allow four 10-story condominiums along the cliffs instead of single-family homes.

A few days before the meeting, Bowers said The Conservation Fund made a proposal to purchase his property for an undisclosed sum. Then, he got a call from his wife in South Carolina. She was trying to get out of the expected path of Hurricane Florence, scheduled to bear down on the region that weekend, and her car had broken down.

“I could either stay put and go to the planning commission and head home Tuesday, or rescue the damsel in distress,” Bowers wrote.

He headed to South Carolina and, over the weekend, decided with his wife, Deane, to accept The Conservation Fund’s offer. Deane Bowers, an environmental folk artist, has wanted the see the property conserved for years, Bowers said.

“She helped me see that even though the number was considerably less than what Virginia True had it contracted for last year, it was close enough.” He wrote. “In the big scheme of things, it was the right thing to do.”

Conservation groups that have lobbied for more than a decade to see portions of Fones Cliffs preserved lauded the freshly minted deal.

“It’s welcome news that a 250-acre section of Fones Cliffs could be preserved, given that a neighboring 1,000-acre parcel continues to be under threat from development violations by a different owner,” said Rebecca Tomazin, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,  in a statement this week. “We’re glad that Terrell Bowers has agreed to sell a portion of the cliffs for conservation and hope for a smooth transfer by the end of the year.”