Land along a stretch of high cliffs overlooking the Rappahannock River that is prized by conservationists as one of the most pristine places along the river, was rezoned last week by the Richmond County Board of Supervisors to allow for a new golf resort.

The board on Nov. 12 voted 4-1 to approve the Fones Cliffs rezoning, with the only dissenting vote coming from the supervisor in whose district the development would take place.

The 976-acre tract, owned by the Florida-based Diatomite Corporation of America, may now become a luxury resort with a 116-room lodge, guest cottages, a 150-seat restaurant, an 18-hole golf course and 718 homes that would cost between $300,000 and $500,000.

Previous efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase the property — and another 200 acres of neighboring waterfront property owned by a South Carolina developer — had fallen through because of a lack of federal funds. The service had hoped to protect the cliff habitat by adding it to the Rappahannock River Valley Wildlife Refuge, a series of tracts stretching from the Bay to the tidal freshwater portions of the river below Port Royal. 

Wildlife biologists consider this stretch of the Rappahannock River a crossroads for migrating eagle populations coming north from Florida and south from Labrador. It is also home to a large year-round eagle population.

“What’s being proposed [at Fones]— the marinas and the upland development — will degrade the site in terms of eagle use,” said Bryan Watts, an expert on bald eagles from the Center for Conservation Biology, which is part of both the Virginia Commonwealth University and The College of William and Mary. “Eagles are sensitive to human disturbances. It’s not just the structures, it’s the actual presence of human activity.”

But the county board hopes the development will lure second-home buyers from Washington, Richmond and Fredericksburg, and boost the county’s tax base.

“We have some of the highest per capita taxes in Virginia, and we’ve had to borrow $1 million for three years in a row to cover our expenses,” said Supervisor John L. Haynes. “This was a compromise. We were willing to give [Diatomite] more total units in exchange for having more control over the environmental aspects.”

The property’s original agricultural zoning allowed for 30 houses, a golf course and three piers.

Citing the eight pages of proffers offered by Diatomite and agreed to by the county in the rezoning, Haynes said, “The environmental concerns were more than addressed by the developers. They specifically stated they will accept regulations above and beyond what is normally required. Now we have absolute control to keep development away from the sensitive areas.”

The agreement states that the developer “acknowledges that the Board of Supervisors may make Phase Two [the actual build out] approval contingent upon adequate cliff and shoreline erosion measures as determined by best engineering practices and in the judgment and discretion of the Board.”

Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Protection Act requires a 100-foot setback from the cliffs, but the proffer agreement gives the board discretion over increasing this distance during its review of engineering plans. “Now we have absolute control to keep development away from the sensitive areas,” Haynes said.

But the makeup of county boards changes every two years. Haynes lost his bid for re-election in November, running on a platform that included the approval of the Fones Cliffs development. Starting in January, the county will have two new supervisors on the board that will be responsible for reviewing the next phase.

Conservationists expressed disappointment in the rezoning decision. “We are deeply disappointed with the Richmond County Board of Supervisors’ vote,” said Joel Dunn, CEO and executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Allowing this rezoning makes way for a massive development inconsistent with the County’s comprehensive plan approved in 2013, which calls for development close to existing county services and infrastructure, which this proposed development is not.”

Peggy Sanner of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also cited the inconsistency with the county’s comprehensive plan, a document that outlines goals and objectives for meeting residents’ vision of how they want their county to develop. The plan says the county will encourage development in areas supported by current infrastructure and protect the “health, integrity, and value of the natural resources and environment” and the county’s “rural character.”

Haynes, though, said the comprehensive plan is only advisory — and noted that it includes commitments to both environmental protection and economic development. “It’s a matter of balance,” he said. “We have huge amounts of land under protection already.”

But others wonder whether the economic engine being promised by Diatomite will come to fruition.

“There’s been no market study, only the proximity to large population areas,” said Tayloe Murphy, former Virginia secretary of natural resources and a former state delegate representing the area.

“I think that it’s more than just being about the eagle habitat, this project just can’t work the way they are saying it will work,” said Murphy, who has publically spoken against the project. 

He cited Stratford Harbor, a waterfront development on the Potomac along steep erodible cliffs of the same geologic formation as Fones Cliffs. Houses and public infrastructure have been lost to erosion at Stratford. “The erosion of the cliffs at Fones,” Murphy said, “makes this project untenable. It’s the wrong project in the wrong place.”

Eagle expert Watts said, “One of the one of the more disappointing things about this decision is that this very rural county has decided to participate in the dismantling of habitat that we‘ve seen in other parts of the Bay, along the I-95 corridor.”

“They have made a local decision, but in making this decision, they are having a broader impact on the region,” Watts said.

County Administrator Morgan Quicke said his staff, the planning commission and the board of supervisors all “worked very hard to meet with people, study it, understand it. The decision was not taken lightly by anyone involved in the process.”

That process has at least two more phases. Diatomite has up to 24 months to come back to the planning commission and the board with detailed engineering plans for review and approval. The next phase will also require more public hearings.

Sanner said CBF will be following the project. “We’ll be looking at the best way to present our views about the project.”

“What happens moving forward is of great importance regionally, across the commonwealth, and nationally given the quality of the resource that is involved,” Sanner said.

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