It’s been almost a year since the owners of a property on the Rappahannock River cleared more than a dozen acres of trees along a historically significant stretch of cliffs without the needed permits — and the violations are now being referred to the Virginia Attorney General for potential legal action.An aerial photo shows the acreage along Fones Cliffs in Virginia that was cleared of trees in the fall of 2017 without the required permits. (Courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy)

Heavy spring rain contributed to erosion on the newly cleared land and was linked to a landslide in late May on the edge of the site owned by Virginia True Corp.

The company had already received two notices of violation from the state Department of Environmental Quality for lacking the proper permits while prepping the land for development. The second violation in March led to fines and an agreement with the state to come into compliance or face additional penalties.

But last week, amid “ongoing issues” at the site, DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said the case was referred to the state Attorney General’s office for further review. She said there is no additional information available about the process at this time. The agency has the option to refer serious environmental violations to the Virginia Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney on a case-by-case basis.

Environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Conservancy lauded the decision regarding a property they have long wanted to see preserved.

Joel Dunn, the conservancy’s president and CEO, said in a statement that the decision is a recognition by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration of “the uniqueness of Fones Cliffs.”

Heavy rains contributed to a landslide along Fones Cliffs in May 2018, and environmental groups argued that illegal land clearing also caused the damage. (Courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy)

“[The] Chesapeake Conservancy will continue to speak out about what we feel is an injustice to current and future generations,” Dunn said in the statement. “The developer’s reckless and illegal actions have significant impacts on the bald eagle population, the preservation of American Indian artifacts likely to exist at the site, and the water quality of the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay.”

A consent order issued by state regulators and signed by Virginia True’s executive vice president, Howard Kleinhendler, at the end of May details violations at the site that resulted in a $42,000 fine. The order also requires the company to submit weekly reports to the DEQ on their progress toward stabilizing erosion at the site and implementing a stormwater management plan.

Jeff Howeth, a professional engineer based in Tappahannock, VA, was hired by Virginia True to get the site back into compliance with state and local laws. He said that he visits the site weekly to ensure it’s moving toward stabilization and submits the weekly reports with dozens of photos of the property. He said that the cleared portions of the site are growing grass and stabilized except for a few small sections.

“I've been out with DEQ as recently as last Friday, and we had an onsite inspection with DEQ on Thursday,” said Howeth. “We've done — barring bad weather, which has been pretty horrendous — everything they've asked us to do along the way.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation advocated for “significant penalties” to be issued against the New York-based property owners for bulldozing trees without having the work first approved to ensure it would prevent erosion and sediment pollution. Richmond County officials said this summer they had finally approved the erosion and sediment control plans that should have been in place before work began in May. The approval lifted the stop-work order that had been in place, but county administrator Morgan Quicke said that additional permits would be required for any further clearing or construction to take place. A bed of grass, shown here in September, is becoming established on a cleared portion of the Fones Cliff property. (Jeff Howeth)

Virginia True has been working with contractors since May to erect silt fencing, catch sediment and grow grass on the property to prevent sediment-laden runoff, regulators said. But the DEQ must also find the site in compliance with the property’s plan for managing stormwater runoff, which has not yet happened.

Conservation organizations have spent more than a decade trying to protect the land along the 4-mile stretch of cliffs, which have remained largely undeveloped for 400 years and are home to a high concentration of eagles. After a Richmond County board rezoned the property to allow for increased density in 2015, Virginia True purchased it, aiming to construct a 1,000-acre luxury golf course and resort that its owners vowed would be environmentally sensitive.

Peggy Sanner, the CBF’s Virginia assistant director and senior attorney, said those promises and the significance of Fones Cliffs makes the violations that much more acute. In a statement, she urged the Attorney General’s office to consider a “substantial penalty for damage to the cliffs, a Virginia treasure.”

Joe McCauley worked to preserve sites on the cliffs for more than 30 years while at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before joining the effort at the Chesapeake Conservancy. For him, having the violations referred up the state’s chain of command provides some validation.

“It shows they understand the seriousness of these violations,” he said, “and have an appreciation that where they occurred is a very special place.”