Riverkeeper along Fones Cliffs, VA

Richard Moncure, tidal river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock, is pictured piloting his boat near a portion of Fones Cliffs in Virginia where the shoreline eroded after trees were cleared for development in 2017. The Conservation Fund has begun a process to purchase the tract. 

A conservation group is on its way to preserving another stretch of ecologically and historically valuable land along Fones Cliffs in Virginia, but it’s not a done deal yet.

The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit focused on land preservation, came in with the highest bid of $8.1 million during a bankruptcy sale on Nov. 3, according to the company auctioning off the 1,000-acre property in Richmond County.

Heather Richards, The Conservation Fund’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, confirmed that her organization had the winning bid but emphasized that the purchase is subject to approval by the bankruptcy court selling the property to satisfy the owners’ debts.

If it goes through, the purchase would be the third of its kind along the sought-after Rappahannock River cliffs in recent years, each of them aimed at preserving the iconic landscape from development.

Development plans were nearly realized at this particular property. Its owner, the Virginia True Corporation, earned county approval in 2015 to build an 18-hole golf course, spa and hundreds of homes. But those plans ran into major headwinds after a manager of the property illegally cleared 13 acres of trees near the riverbank in 2017, triggering costly fines and additional oversight from state regulators during the following two years.

Fones Cliffs aerial

An aerial photo shows the more than 13 acres that were illegally cleared of trees in 2017 on the property along Fones Cliffs in Virginia, owned by the Virginia True Corp. State regulators eventually levied $200,000 in fines for the environmental damage. ​(Chesapeake Conservancy)

In 2019, Virginia True filed for bankruptcy in New York. The filings included a revamped plan for the property: a combination of federally funded housing, a hotel and luxury condos in 10-story towers.

The Conservation Fund’s $8.1 million bid during the Nov. 3 auction was enough to beat out the only other bidder, a new developer that apparently intended to resurrect plans for a golf course and housing along the river. That’s according to Joshua Olshin, a managing partner for Auction Advisors, a New York-based company that specializes in bankruptcy auctions and organized the online auction for the Fones Cliffs land.

Olshin said that Fones Cliffs Development offered $4.25 million ahead of the auction and continued to bid against the conservation group until the number reached over $8 million. The property last sold for $12 million in 2015. The development group, Olshin said, included some but not all of the investors who had been involved with Virginia True.

“They didn’t mention any plans, but they wanted to make it a destination with higher-end development,” Olshin said after the auction.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which levied $200,000 in fines against the company for environmental violations, is listed as a debtor in the bankruptcy filings, behind the company that Virginia True owes nearly $5 million from its purchase of the property.

The real estate listing for the bankruptcy auction focused on the property’s “incredible views” from more than a mile of cliffs along the river. It stated that the land is currently zoned for light agricultural use and said a preliminary development plan approved for the property is “now potentially expired.”

Chief Anne Richardson with Interior Sec. Deb Haaland

Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe (left) and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland participate in an event on April 1, 2022, that commemorated the transfer of 465 acres along Fones Cliffs on Virginia's Rappahannock River to the tribe's ownership. 

Conservation groups have played key roles in purchasing two other large chunks of the Northern Neck landscape, which is home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the country and is historically and culturally important to the Rappahannock Tribe.

One 252-acre property that had also been slated for development was purchased by The Conservation Fund in 2018 and then by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the next year. The Chesapeake Conservancy purchased another 465-acre property from Northern Neck Lumber Co. and donated it in April to the Rappahannock Tribe.

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