Concern Builds For Culturally And Environmentally Sensitive Fones Cliffs

Jan 19, 2018

Fones Cliffs and the area mistakenly cleared.
Credit Chesapeake Conservancy

Two years ago, Richmond County, in Virginia's Northern Neck, approved a controversial plan to build a large golf course resort on a pristine cliff-top perched over the Rapphannock River. But developers are off to a bad start after illegally clearing over 13 wooded acres. 

Fones Cliffs is a favorite roosting spot for migrating and local bald eagles. It was also once occupied by the Rappahannock tribe more than 400 years ago. Last year, it was sold to five New York investors for $12 million. The 964 acre site is slated for a championship golf course, restaurant and bar and more than 700 houses.

In November, developers went in to clear about 10,000 square feet to start work on the golf course, which is allowed by county zoning. But clearing 13.5 acres requires state and local permits and erosion and stormwater controls. That didn't go unnoticed by neighbors, including Richard Moncure, a tidal river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock, who expressed concerns at a recent county Board of Supervisors meeting. "We had heard some activity, tractors. Saw some smoke from some of the fires that were burning some of the trees," Moncure said.

The developers have an agreement with the environmentalists to stay in touch about work planned for the project. "They told us they are just working to get some of the initial steps of this project together so we assumed that they were behind on their planning and certainly didn't anticipate that they would be breaking ground on this project at this stage," Moncure said.

Silt fencing has been installed since the November 30 stop work order.
Credit T. Richard English/Richmond County Environmental Compliance Agent

Robert Smith is a Virginia attorney who represents the New York owners of Virginia True Corporation. He said clearing the acres, some close to the edge of the cliffs, was a misunderstanding by contractors. "We've got a bunch of engineers and architects and folks involved but my understanding is there is an exemption in the county for agricultural land," Smith noted. "We wanted to get in there and clear a little bit. We thought the county had given their consent."

County officials were shocked at what they saw. Concerned about erosion and sediment that could run into the river below, environmental compliance agent Richard English issued a stop work order and contacted the state Department of Environmental Quality. "Essentially, they've bulldozed trees and excavated up tree roots, they've put in big brush piles," English explained. "It's just dirt land right now. They have some areas seeded with a little bit of straw out there and that's how it sits today."

State and local environmental officials said developers never obtained permits or put up silt fencing or made any other effort to protect the river from runoff. Owner Howard Kleinhendler said a newly hired project manager would be visiting the site this week. "I can assure you that we plan on complying with everything as to the letter of the law and if there was an oversight here with regard to the permitting process. I'm sure we're going to correct it," Kleinhendler said.

Mapping shows where the clearing occurred and where eagles are frequently spotted.
Credit Chesapeake Conservancy

Joseph McCauley, with the Chesapeake Conservancy, also spoke before the board of supervisors. "We just remain extremely disappointed that the first actions by these developers was an unpermitted land clearing that has significant negative ramifications for bald eagles, for our understanding of the Rappahannock tribe and for erosion from those cliffs into the Rappahannock River," McCauley said. "We're very interested in seeing how the developers are going react to and remediate."

State and local officials said they will not fine developers, preferring to work to get the site into compliance. The county is awaiting engineer reports that will determine whether developers violated the Chesapeake Bay Act. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.