Tree clearing at Fones Cliffs, VA

This aerial photograph shows the proximity of the clearing to the edge of Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock river. (Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Conservancy)

A golf resort that developers pledged to construct with a “soft touch” on environmentally sensitive cliffs along Virginia’s Rappahannock River got off to a portentous start late last year. Its owners cleared more than a dozen acres of trees near erosion-prone banks and prime eagle habitat without acquiring the proper permits, heightening ongoing concerns among environmental groups who have opposed the project. 

Called Fones Cliffs, the steep embankments overlooking a bend in the river are prized by conservationists for their role in history and as pristine habitat for high concentrations of eagles. Nonetheless, the Richmond County Board of Supervisors agreed in late 2015 to rezone a nearly 1,000-acre parcel abutting the cliffs to allow for a new golf resort.

Along with an 18-hole golf course, plans for the development include 205 single-family homes, 513 multifamily units, 18 cabins and a 116-room lodge as well as a spa, restaurant and shops.

In exchange for rezoning the site to allow for more dwelling units, the original owners of the property, Diatomite Corporation of America, agreed to several measures that go beyond what is typically required of developers. The proffer statement requires the developer to consult the Richmond County Board of Supervisors before beginning construction to get preliminary approvals for setback requirements. The applicant also committed to apply best practices to avoid cliff and shoreline erosion and to consult with the county on those plans before beginning construction.

The site had been quiet for several months since it earned approval and, in May of 2017, was sold to a new developer, Virginia True Corporation. But, in November, passers-by reported “hearing rumblings” and seeing smoke coming from the burning of debris to county officials who were not aware that type of work had started on the property.

When Richard Moncure, river steward for Friends of the Rappahannock, contacted the county, he was initially told the activity was little more than the limb- and bush-trimming that would be permitted under the development’s by-right zoning. Moncure’s organization also has an agreement with the developer that entails being consulted before construction begins on the site.

“The next thing we heard was that the county had issued a stop work order,” Moncure said.

After visiting the site to follow up on concerns, Richmond County officials issued a stop work order at the end of November, which is still in place. They found that a little more than 13 acres of trees had been cleared without the owner first acquiring the proper permits or completing any erosion and sediment control plans.

“We’re not happy that this was the first step taken in this project, either,” said County Administrator Morgan Quicke, who chalked some of the action up to “miscommunication” between the county and property agent. “This is a very public project. One of the big concerns of the board is making sure this was done right.”

“I hope this can be mitigated and brought back into compliance as soon as possible,” he said last week. But the stop work order “is still very much in place.”

Rob Smith, a Northern Neck native and lawyer who is the agent for the Virginia True development, called the stop work order “much ado about nothing” and said that sediment and erosion controls are now in the works.

“We only disturbed about 1 percent of the land,” Smith said of the nearly 1,000-acre property. “Before we went out there, we asked the county if we complied with the exemption and they said, ‘Yes.’ It just turned out to be a miscommunication.”

The county has required the developer to begin installing remediation measures, including silt fencing and sediment traps, to reduce the risk of erosion. But Quicke said the stop work order will not be lifted until the county approves an erosion and sediment control plan for the project, to include stabilizing the cleared land to prevent erosion.

Quicke said no penalties had been issued, but he referred to the unpermitted clearing as “strike one and two combined” if the property does not quickly come into compliance.

The property’s agricultural zoning permit allows for tree trimming or other activities that would not require land-disturbance or stormwater permits from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. But any clearing of more than one acre requires stormwater management, and any clearing of more than 2,500 square feet requires erosion and sediment control.

Aerial photos provided by the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit that’s closely followed the project, show a wide swath of cleared land and trees stacked into piles not far from the cliffs.

Smith said the clearing was conducted in compliance with the 100-foot setbacks required by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act from the cliff’s edge, but county officials said they had not yet verified those measurements. An assessment provided to the property owners by Virginia’s Shoreline Erosion Advisory Service suggests that the best way to prevent erosion is to establish a setback of development from the bank by at least 280 feet, or twice the height of the cliffs.  

Smith said the land was cleared to “open up the space” so crews can conduct survey work and verify their plans for the golf course, which is being billed as an environmentally considerate project atop the breathtaking cliffs.

A rendering that ran in the October 2017 issue of Golf Course Architecture shows the course’s 14th hole cozied up to the cliff’s edge with no discernable tree buffer. The course’s architect, Lester George, says in the article that the designs approach the property “with a very soft hand” environmentally.

“We will design the golf course with a goal of minimal land disturbance, earth moving and impacts to the natural habitat in an effort to produce an environmentally sustainable resort,” George continued.

Conservationists who are following the project are concerned about the erosion that could result from the clearing — and the impression it leaves as one of the developer’s first steps on the property. But they’re also alarmed by the potential impact on eagle habitat and historical resources.

“Those mature trees removed by the bluff were most certainly used by eagles for roosting and loafing and perch sites when they’re feeding,” said Joe McCauley, Chesapeake fellow with the Chesapeake Conservancy. “So that’s an unfortunate loss for bald eagles in a spot that has an oversized importance to bald eagles.”

The conservancy created a map to reflect the strong density of eagle sightings in and around the area that was cleared. The eagle sightings had been recorded by Bill Portlock, senior educator at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Bryan Watts, an expert on bald eagles from the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia, has said in the past that the project could pose a threat to eagles, which, though no longer endangered, can be sensitive to human activity.

For his part, Smith insists that the tree clearing did not impact any eagles on the property and that the necessary permits are being acquired before any additional lands are cleared.

“There are tens of thousands of acres out here in this basin. We disturbed like .001 percent of it,” Smith said. “There are more eagles in this area than the environment can sustain.”

Beyond eagles, McCauley said a worse outcome of the clearing could be “the irreparable loss of potential archeological resources.” Historians know from explorer John Smith’s writings that he encountered — and exchanged arrows and lead with — members of the Rappahannock Tribe at these cliffs in 1608. The proffer statement includes an agreement to place historical markers at this and other historical sites on the property, but no archeological surveys took place before the land was cleared.

“It just seems such a callous disregard for that part of our history and our culture,” said McCauley, who wrote a letter to request, among other measures, protections for archeological resources at the property. “To lose that without having really understood what was there is a travesty.”

Smith said no additional clearing is planned for the golf course property until this spring.

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