TAPPAHANNOCK, Va. — The emerald tree canopy on this town’s scenic high cliffs is something of a luxury community for bald eagles. There are gorgeous views of the Rappahannock River, nice fishing and tasty seafood. Best of all, it’s one of the top places in the Chesapeake Bay region to raise their young.
But if the corporation that owns the land where they live has its way, moving day will come soon. Richmond County recently approved a request from Diatomite Corporation of America to rezone a large section of the cliffs for a sprawling resort with pricey housing and an 18-hole golf course atop a habitat used by tens of thousands of eagles each year.
The proposed development on the rezoned land has set off a heated skirmish in sleepy Richmond County, which federal troops occupied during the Civil War. It also is known as the place where native tribes fired arrows at explorer John Smith as he sailed through in 1608. In the fall, the county board will consider whether to allow construction.
Opponents such as the Chesapeake Conservancy and Friends of the Rappahannock say wiping away hundreds of trees will destroy the scenery that Smith viewed before English settlers arrived.
Even worse, they say, a resort that would take years to build could permanently damage one of the most important gathering places for eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region. Hundreds of eagles live there, and as many as 20,000 visit to feed on shad, herring and blue catfish as they migrate between Canada and South America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, also has expressed concern.
“This is a global hot spot,” said Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, a research group that studies nature and birds at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. “There’s no other place on the continent like the Chesapeake Bay for eagles, and this place is one of the most important places in the bay. It’s an eagle magnet.”
But a backer of the project said the conservationists are part of “a cabal of interests,” including property owners along the Rappahannock who are using environmental issues as a wedge to keep the remote and quiet landscape to themselves. He described their opposition as a NIMBY movement — “not in my back yard.”
“You feel like you’re being shot at all the time,” said Robert Smith, an attorney for Diatomite, which is based in Miami, according to court records. The land that conservationists call historic and pristine was once denuded for resources to fight the Civil War, Smith said. Now, the eagle population, which has rebounded nationwide after being classified as endangered, is so plentiful that they appear to be everywhere in Virginia, he said.
“It’s a false assumption that man and nature can’t co-exist,” Smith said.
The bald eagle is one of the biggest success stories of the Endangered Species Act. America’s national symbol was nearly eliminated by destruction of its habitat, food contamination, illegal shooting and pesticide use in the 1970s. But the population recovered with protection and was removed from the endangered list eight years ago.
On a recent Tuesday, about two dozen brown-feathered eagles, 1-year-old and younger, playfully screeched and swooped at each other over the Rappahannock. Nearby, an adult bald eagle glided over still water and snatched a fish.
They inhabit Fones Cliffs, where bluffs 1,000 feet high overlook a wide section of the river. The Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to purchase the land in recent years but failed. A budget request by President Obama that would provide funds to protect a major portion of the property is before Congress, said Joel Dunn, president and chief executive of the Chesapeake Conservancy, who helped lobby for it.
Diatomite bought the land in the 1950s for a chalky sedimentary rock of the same name. The rock was heralded for its many uses — from an additive in cement to a kitchen grease cleanser to a purifier of beer. But cheaper substitutes have lessened its value.
Three years ago the company envisioned another use for the property. The land would be developed for a 116-room lodge, guest cottages and a 150-seat restaurant, as well as 718 homes that would cost between $300,000 and $500,000, said R. Morgan Quicke, Richmond County’s administrator.
“This is certainly much bigger than anything than we’ve ever been a part of,” Quicke said.
Diatomite promised the county planning board that the development will bring new jobs and added tax revenue to a county still recovering from the 2008 recession.
In a nod to county history, Smith said in a February presentation that “monuments will be erected to recognize John Smith and the first English settlers.” An 18-hole championship golf course would tie everything together.
Smith, the attorney, said that there would be millions of dollars in additional tax revenue. Conservation easements that protect virgin land from development now yield $5 per acre in taxes for the county. “Our property . . . will generate approximately $9,000 per acre,” Smith said.
But will buyers flock to what Quicke described as “a very rural part of the county . . . big farms, big landowners, big tracts of land, narrow roads” 35 miles from the small city of Fredericksburg? The largest road, two-lane Route 624 is so sparsely traveled that workers didn’t bother to paint a yellow stripe.
Most homes in the area cost no more than $150,000, and they would be dwarfed by the 3,500-square-foot houses in the proposed project.
The county board of supervisors will start considering the proposal in the fall, a process that could take a year. Its attraction to buyers is “something that needs to be determined as we go through the process,” Quicke said.
Diatomite says there’s a market, but what the county “might consider is maybe getting a second opinion.”
Hill Wellford, whose 2,200-acre property sits along the river, said there’s no reason to think that people will flock to the area after eagles are chased from Fones Cliffs. Wellford joined one of several conservation groups opposed to the project and wrote a letter to the planning board to denounce the project.
“The vision is not to be against development, but to focus on how to protect essential natural features, spawning crabs and bird habitat,” said Wellford, a retired lawyer.
Wellford said that 10 active eagle nests are on his land. Through binoculars, he recently watched two nesting, one with a lifeless fish in its talons. “You realize you’re seeing something special.”
But Smith argues that Virginia’s eagle population has grown to a saturation point, so large that younger birds cannot find unoccupied territory. Citing Watts and other bird experts, Smith said eagles “will nest at airports, on a chimney, at nuclear power plants.”
Yet Watts, with the Center for Conservation Biology, said he is strongly opposed to development.
Watts said he has debunked past arguments by conservationists who sought to stop developments by using the destruction of the eagle habitat as an excuse. But “this is different than those. That area is a nexus for populations across the coast. There’s a much larger public good at Fones Cliffs that trumps local landowner rights.”