Virginia’s attorney general and the Department of Environmental Quality filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a New York company for “significant and repeated” environmental violations at a golf course resort it is developing on Fones Cliffs.
Virginia True Corp. faces civil penalties of up to $32,500 for each violation within the discretion of the court. The suit also says, “each day of violation of each requirement shall constitute a separate offense.”
The violations stem from work late last year when Virginia True was preparing the property to show investors for its planned 964-acre golf course resort and development overlooking the Rappahannock River in Richmond County. But in doing so, the developer cleared about 13.4 acres atop the cliffs without obtaining the proper state permits and stormwater management plan approval.
The county issued a stop-work order for not adhering to local erosion and sediment controls while the state issued violations. Heavy rains then created a breach in the cliffs where trees and soil sloughed down toward the river. Behind it was part of the area where the land was cleared.
Conservationists oppose the development, citing Fones Cliffs’ importance to a large population of bald eagles and to local commercial watermen and its historical significance to the Rappahannock Tribe.
Virginia True’s New York-based owners, Domenick and Anthony Cipollone, Benito R. Fernandez and Howard Kleinhendler, hired engineer Jeff Howeth of Tappahannock to manage the project in February, just after the first DEQ violation notice. They received another one in April and a third in August.
In addition, the suit alleges 17 counts of illegal actions by Virginia True at Fones Cliffs. All stem from the illegally cleared land.
Howeth said he’s been working closely with DEQ since the violations, but that the excessive rainfall this year has been challenging.
The lawsuit alleges Virginia True “repeatedly disregarded its responsibilities to protect the land and waterways around its project, failed to seek and obtain the permits it knew it needed, and continued to cut corners and ignore its responsibilities even after receiving multiple notices of violation.”
The suit asks the court for an injunction to force Virginia True to comply with environmental laws. It also asks the court to impose the maximum allowable civil penalties and order any other relief the court believes to be appropriate.
“We’re asking the court to put a stop to these violations, and to compensate the commonwealth for the predictable and needless damage that has been caused,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a news release.
According to Herring’s office, DEQ notified Virginia True of violations in February, April and August 2018, “yet violations continued.” The majority of the allegations accuse the company of failing to control further erosion and sediment at the site.
Some of the violations cited in the suit go from larger issues of unpermitted discharge and sediment runoff due to ineffective erosion and sediment controls down to the smallest of details, including not posting notices properly at the site.
DEQ Director David Paylor said he referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office last month after the agency closely monitored required compliance during the summer and fall.
“We are pleased Attorney General Herring is taking this matter as seriously as we are in order to hold Virginia True accountable,” Paylor said in a joint press release with the attorney general.
Edward Mullin of the Richmond-based law firm Reed Smith issued a statement on behalf of the company.
“While it is our policy not to comment on pending litigation, Virginia True has taken issues raised by the Department of Environmental Quality over the course of the year seriously and will review any action taken by the Office of the Attorney General in a similar manner,” the statement said. “Virginia True has been engaged with the Department and has worked actively to address issues raised by it. It remains firm in its commitment to resolve them.”
Richmond County Administrator Morgan Quicke said the last time he spoke with anyone from the company was several months ago, when they asked about the possibility of building a group of 30-story condominium units atop the cliffs.