PHOTO: Fones Cliffs clearing

An aerial photo shows unauthorized logging near the Rappahannock River’s Fones Cliffs formation.

“IT’S JUST been one misstep after another for the past couple of years.”

That’s how Richmond County Administrator Morgan Quicke sums up efforts by a New York partnership to develop Fones Cliffs, the historic and environmentally sensitive 100-foot bluffs that rise from the Rappahannock River shoreline in the Northern Neck’s Richmond County.

Missteps, blunders, gaffes—any of those synonyms would describe the complications with the nearly 1,000-acre development project undertaken by the group called Virginia True Corp., which purchased the property from Florida-based Diatomite Corp. of America for $12 million in 2017.

First, the project sprouted from the pie-in-the-sky idea that people would flock to such a remote resort, golf course and housing development. Then, with (empty) promises of the utmost care and conservation, the group and its lawyers won the controversial and much-debated decision by the Richmond County Board of Supervisors to grant the necessary rezoning.

Next, Virginia True thumbed its nose at both the Richmond County permitting process and state Department of Environmental Quality regulations as it denuded 13.5 acres of mature forest, causing precisely the disastrous erosion that officials and environmentalists feared.

All of this has led to what was perhaps inevitable: Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection sought by the two remaining partners, Howard Kleinhendler and Benito R. Fernandez, who claim total liabilities of more than $13.5 million. Major creditors include the previous owner, Diatomite, and the other two former Virginia True partners, brothers Domenick and Anthony Cipollone, who evidently looked to escape the debacle.

Creditors also include DEQ Director David Paylor and even Jeff Howeth, the engineer Virginia True hired to work with DEQ to bring the damaged site back into compliance.

Just to be clear, the environmental damage can’t be undone, only mitigated. The bulldozing of the pristine woodland intruded upon the 100-foot river buffer required under the Chesapeake Bay Act. Hit by the relentless rains of 2018, the bare, eroding land then took down trees at the edge of cliffs, dumping them and an avalanche of mud into the river.

Attorney General Mark Herring sued Virginia True for ignoring DEQ rules and lagging on mitigation efforts, adding a litigation layer to the fines already levied.

It’s worth noting here that a neighboring 252-acre parcel was threatened with the development of 10 high-rise condominiums by longtime owner/developer Terrell Bowers. Acquiescing to the protests of conservationists and nearby landowners, Bowers instead sold his land to the Arlington-based Conservation Fund. The organization then sold it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will preserve the tract in perpetuity.

If only the same scenario could be applied to Virginia True’s 964 acres as well. The unique, rugged four-mile Fones Cliffs land formation is not only aesthetically pleasing in itself, it is home to a large population of bald eagles and includes sites once occupied by the Rappahannock tribe, whose members were among the Northern Neck’s earliest inhabitants and who left behind treasured ancient artifacts.

Now, as though it were some underlying premonition all along, remaining partner Kleinhendler told The Free Lance–Star recently that his development is perfectly positioned to attract the throngs of well-paid Amazon executives who will populate the company’s new headquarters in Arlington. They won’t be coming to play golf, though, since a golf course is no longer a component of Virginia True’s development plan. The site is only five miles from Montross, so there’s that.

It’s fair to question the thinking that went into the development plan in the first place. Richmond County has only 9,000 people. The original plan that came before the supervisors included 700 single-family homes and townhouses, a 116-room lodge, 18 cabins, a spa, a restaurant and the 18-hole golf course.

These days, plans call for a 300-room hotel and a few 10-story condos, with houses going in after that. Maybe a wedding venue? Those are pretty grand plans for such a small, rural locality.

From the beginning, the project was pitched as a much-needed economic shot in the arm for Richmond County. But not only is it creating an administrative nightmare for the county, Virginia True reportedly can’t even get its local real estate taxes in on time.

Remember those old sketch pads with a page you could lift and the drawing would just disappear? Too bad this whole proposal isn’t on one of those.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion