To the group of environmentalists bobbing in a boat on the Rappahannock River below 70-foot, orange-yellow cliffs, the solitary blue house above looked to be a folly.
Uninhabited, windows broken, and built close to the edge of a crumbling cliff, the house came to symbolize, for some, the mammoth developments being proposed amid tiny rural communities by starry-eyed owners. For those concerned with the stagnant local economy, it was a reminder of the loss of property rights.
The unfinished house sat along a half-mile of waterfront cliffs called Rappahannock Cliffs, surrounded by 252 acres of farm fields and forest. Huge trees along the cliffs are used by one of the region’s largest migrating population of bald eagles to roost and fish. At one time, a bald eagle nested in a nearby tree.
The house looked across to marshlands from where the Rappahannock Tribe chased off Capt. John Smith more than 400 years ago. The long views from Rappahannock Cliffs and the adjacent Fones Cliffs are staggering. At times you can look down on a bald eagle flying by. Yet, only a lucky few in this rural community have seen the view from the top of the cliffs.
That’s about to change.
Earlier this year, the property was sold for $3.96 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year, the original owner, Terrell Bowers, who now lives in South Carolina, sold the property to the Conservation Fund for the same price, which held it until Congress appropriated the money for the federal government to buy it. The property was assessed at $1.81 million.
For environmentalists, the road to Fish and Wildlife ownership and the property becoming part of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge was long and hard-fought. They celebrated their success with a ceremony on the cliffs June 28 that included Rappahannock Tribe chief Anne Richardson, a number of Fish and Wildlife officials and Rep. Rob Wittman, who Bowers said was integral in convincing him to sell the property to conservationists.
For Bowers, now nearly 70, who began building the blue house more than a decade ago, it was the end of a dream turned nightmare. He said what was described as a “fight” stemmed from a disagreement with the government and conservation groups over the value of his property and their “obstruction” of his property rights.
“I was a willing conservator from day one, and had worked directly with USFWS and every other conservation organization in the region for over 15 years to conserve my land,” Bowers wrote in an email this week. “We could not agree on value. The ‘fight’ was to block me from doing something else with my land.”
Rappahannock Cliffs started out as a family vacation spot for Bowers, who at the time lived in Richmond and worked in commercial real estate. He purchased the property in 2003 from a Richmond businessman who told Bowers he bought it because “they’re not making any more waterfront.”
Besides the adjacent 964-acre property of Fones Cliffs, owned back then by the Diatomite Corp., it was one of the most visually stunning properties in Richmond County, and likely the Northern Neck region.
In the beginning, Bowers designed the 3,600-square-foot blue house for his family.
“A good deal of thought went into it,” he said in an interview at the blue house last year. “We had four kids and I had four corner bedrooms that were, down to the millimeter, equal in size.”
Though he never finished the house, inside was evidence it was painstakingly built by local master craftsmen hired by Bowers. A mason who does work at Stratford Hall built the fireplace. A stairway to the second floor was made from reclaimed lumber from a hotel in the historic Virginia railroad town of Crewe. The heart-pine floors on the first floor are most special to Bowers.
“I used old flooring from a gymnasium at U.Va., where my wife and I had our first college kiss out on the steps back in the day,” he said.
Upstairs, an unfinished deck expands an already dramatic view of the Rappahannock River and beyond.
But money changes everything.
A CHANGE IN PLANS
Bowers said he had planned on building only the vacation house and putting his land into a conservation easement and collecting a potentially sizable tax break. That depended on the Richmond County assessment of his land, and that’s where the trouble began.
In 2005, the county, in an effort to protect places such as Fones Cliffs, downsized the number of houses private landowners could build. His property was originally assessed at its value for having one lot for every 2.5 acres. Subsequent amendments in the county’s zoning laws limited him to building just eight homes.
Bowers said that devalued his property by about 90 percent.
In 2007, he asked the Board of Supervisors to rezone his property so he could build 50 houses on the 250-acre tract. He said he wanted to use that to raise the value of his property and potentially put it in a conservation easement. They turned him down.
Just a few months later, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list.
Bowers took a more than a 10-year-long detour from his dream vacation home to recover his money. The battles with environmentalists got nasty.
Talk to environmentalists and conservationists and they’ll tell you Bowers brought it on himself. There were Board of Supervisors meetings during which he pitted himself against people who said his plans would take down forests, ruin the pristine, historic landscape, chase away bald eagles and pollute the river below.
Bowers was easy to pick out at the board hearings—tall, confidant, smiling and donning cowboy boots. He came prepared to take on the anti-development crowd.
At one hearing, he set a prop on the podium—an action-figure Minion—before launching into a speech where he accused the crowd of being easily led by environmental organizations.
Finally, in 2012, his children grown, the house still unfinished, he was granted zoning for a 45-lot subdivision and commercial pier.
He celebrated at the cliff’s edge by shooting his gun into the air along with Diatomite attorney Robert Smith.
PROTECTING PROPERTY RIGHTS
Back when Bowers first bought the property, it was being farmed for corn. Now, in winter after it snows, he said you can still see the ridges from the rows of corn in what has since become woods. And even though his wife convinced him that selling to a group that would protect the property was the right thing to do, he still circles back to his old argument.
“It hasn’t always been wooded on Fones Cliffs,” he said during the interview last fall. “Down at Carters Wharf Landing [on the Rappahannock River below] in the steamboat era, there was a commercial pier where they brought all kinds of goods.”
Part of Fones Cliffs is still lumbered. Northern Neck Lumber is a 55-year-old family-owned company that owns half of Fones Cliffs. Kennon Morris, vice president of the company, has sided with Bowers, Diatomite and the newest owner Virginia True, arguing the issue was not about bald eagles but private property rights.
Virginia True, whose owners are New York-based, purchased the Diatomite half of Fones Cliffs back in 2017 with plans to turn it into a golf-course resort with a hotel and housing. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May.
Before selling, Bowers had been talking with the company and had set up a meeting to ask the county to allow him to build four 10-story condominiums containing a total of 200 units.
Bowers, who plays the guitar and sings, produced his own CD, “Turning Point,” that includes a song about one of the Board of Supervisors hearings called, “How Ya Doing Baby.” One part is subtitled, “I can’t take it anymore.”
“There’s a segment where I have somebody hollering in the background, ‘answer the question, answer the question.’ That came from the 2007 hearing where they voted me down.”
He insists he’s not a developer.
“I’ve been portrayed as this evil out-of-state developer,” he said. “I’m a landowner ... . I only wanted to regain my property rights that have been stripped from the land.”
He said he initially wanted just a house and a conservation easement but the 2005 change in the zoning ordinance forced him “down the path of development” in an effort to recoup some of his costs, even though the change was made to prevent development.
He blames the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservationists for dragging out the dispute by failing to make a fair offer on his land earlier.
“Conservation happens when a buyer puts their money where their mouth is, which is exactly what The Conservation Fund did (and ultimately what USFWS did on the federal level, a result of the efforts of many people),” he wrote in the email this week. “Blocking property rights alienates and causes strain for the landowner’s family, it divides the community, and ultimately it sidetracks the conservation effort.”
Last month, the house was taken down.
“The main reason was reducing building square footage and associated maintenance costs, as required by the Department of the Interior,” a spokesperson for USFWS said in an email. “Access to electricity was more than 1.5 miles away. It was located 25 feet from the cliff, and vegetation along the cliff had been removed. We will work to restore some of that vegetation.”