On 12 November, the Richmond County board of supervisors voted 4 to 1 in favor of rezoning the 976-acre Diatomite tract from general agricultural (A-1) to residential mixed use (R-3) with portions for business use (B-2), paving the way for a luxury resort that includes a 116-room lodge, more than 700 homes, a 150-seat restaurant, seven piers, an 18-hole golf course and driving range, a skeet and trap range, an equestrian barn with space for 90 horses and a vineyard. The property, along with the adjacent Bowers tract that has been joined to the project, encompasses most of the Fones Cliffs formation along the Rappahannock River, one of the great scenic and natural areas of the Chesapeake Bay region.
Fones Cliffs represents the core of a site that holds continental significance for bald eagles. In addition to supporting one of the highest breeding densities throughout the species’ range, Fones Cliffs is one of the few places in the region that supports high numbers of nonbreeding eagles during both the summer and winter seasons. Thousands of eagles utilize the site on an annual basis, migrating from as far north as Labrador and as far south as Florida. It is the convergence of eagles from multiple populations rather than the local breeding population that elevates the conservation value of the site. In effect, the Supervisors were making a decision not just for the residents and eagles of Richmond County but also for residents and eagles from communities along much of the Eastern Seaboard.
Both Robert Smith, an attorney for Diatomite, and Terrell Bowers, an adjacent landowner who has joined the project, have stated on many occasions that the proposed development would in no way disturb any eagles. While they are entitled to their opinions, their statements run counter to the facts. Seven separate studies, including two on the Rappahannock, two on the James, two on the Potomac and one on the Susquehanna, have conclusively shown that the best predictor of shoreline disuse by eagles is the presence of people either in boats or on land. To see how this scenario will play out, one has only to travel across the Northern Neck to Belmont Bay and watch the eagles leave for the summer as boaters emerge from Occoquan in the spring.
To buttress his case, Mr. Bowers has used several statements that I have made without providing the broader context. He quotes me as stating that the proportion of eagles that are nesting in urban areas is increasing and that productivity of these “urban pairs” is indistinguishable from pairs in more pristine settings. Both of these statements are true. However, Bowers fails to mention that the urban-nesting pairs currently account for only 3% of the Virginia population. The increase has been from 0 to 3%. Mr. Bowers also quotes me as stating that the property supports no breeding pairs. Mr. Bowers is aware that his property, which has been joined to the project, supported an active nest in 2015 that produced two young. Mr. Bowers is also aware that the combined properties have supported as many as three breeding pairs in recent years. To clarify the point, we have records of eagles nesting on the property dating back to 1964. The property has been responsible for producing more than 40 young since 1990. Eagles will continue to nest on the property as long as suitable habitat remains intact.
The central question raised repeatedly by opponents is whether or not this project as proposed is appropriate for this specific site. This question contemplates the long-term vision for Fones Cliffs, Richmond County and the broader upper Rappahannock River. As one of the few remaining sites in eastern North America where one may still observe large numbers of eagles as part of a pristine ecosystem, Fones Cliffs is a natural treasure. The alternatives are to destroy this site now for short-term gain or maintain it for future generations. As the public hearing held on October 8th drew to a close, concerned citizens had spoken in favor of protection by a ratio of nearly twenty to one. After all, the project plan does not just request approval for development, it requests that the Supervisors breech the county’s own comprehensive plan that lays out a blueprint for the future – a blueprint that unequivocally values the natural resources that will be diminished by the proposed project and a blueprint that has been supported by the tax-paying citizens of the county.
Bo-Wash, the megacity stretching from Boston to Washington, accounts for 15% of our nation’s gross domestic product. This money has been moving out in ever widening circles from Washington, clearing everything in its path. The fact that this project has been proposed is a sign that the advancing front of development has finally reached rural Richmond County. The decision about this project is the same fundamental decision that was confronted by Fairfax and Alexandria in the 1980s and more recently by Fredericksburg. One is left to wonder if we have learned anything from the choices made by these jurisdictions regarding the tradeoffs between promises of tax revenue and declines in the quality of life experienced by the citizenry.
The conflict over the proposal to develop Fones Cliffs has been reminiscent of the divisive and often heated “environment vs property rights” debates of the 1990s. The discourse reached its lowest level during the public hearing when Mr. Smith, a self proclaimed local historian, began his presentation with the statement on his opening slide “COMMUNISM vs CAPITALISM”. Looking around the overcapacity crowd, it seemed that people were confused as to whether to either be insulted by the suggestion that residents with an opposing view were somehow unpatriotic or amused by him invoking the term communism during a local public hearing, one of the true bastions of American democracy. Later near the close of the hearing Mr. Bowers, to the amazement of the crowd, stood up with puppets and suggested that all those who opposed the development were minions of some “conflict for profit” conspiracy. Have we truly reached a level of cynicism that dismisses out of hand the possibility that citizens would ever spend their time and energy to stand up for their convictions for any reason other than economic gain?
Our democracy is built on inclusion and has the capacity to accommodate a wide range of opposing views. Through all of their public comments and actions, Mr. Smith and Mr. Bowers appear to believe that property rights are sacrosanct and decisions regarding private property should be beyond the reach of public input. Now, as in the 1990s, the politically-driven characterization of people who support environmental protection as opponents of private property rights is a red herring. All of the environmentalists I know believe that private property rights are a cornerstone of our democracy. The difference is that they also believe that there are places on the landscape where property rights intersect with the greater public good and that where these places occur we should, as a society, seek an appropriate compromise. Society should have the authority to protect those places that have contributed in a significant way to our cultural fabric and in return private land owners should be fairly compensated by society for these resources. In my opinion, Fones Cliffs represents such a site.
Written by Bryan Watts | firstname.lastname@example.org | (757) 221-2247
January 8, 2016