The Conservation Fund acquires 1,000-acre Fones Cliffs property at auction for $8.1M
The Conservation Fund acquired 964 acres of land along the Rappahannock River’s Fones Cliffs. (Courtesy of Heather Richards)
The Conservation Fund announced Friday it has acquired nearly 1,000 acres along the Rappahannock River in Richmond County to protect the largest remaining unconserved portion of Fones Cliffs.
“These are iconic, 80- to 100-feet-tall cliffs in some places,” said Bryan Hofmann, deputy director of Friends of the Rappahannock, a regional nonprofit conservation group. “Folks like to say as John Smith sailed up the Rappahannock, those cliffs probably looked awfully similar to the way they do now. It’s not easy to put a tangible dollar value on that when you get out there to kayak, canoe and fish.”
The Conservation Fund did just that when the national nonprofit submitted a winning bid of $8.1 million for the property in November during an auction that was part of a three-year bankruptcy proceeding involving landowner Virginia True Corporation.
The land will be placed under conservation easement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then transferred to the Rappahannock Tribe during the latter half of 2023 to “further their efforts to return to the river,” said Heather Richards, the Conservation Fund’s mid-Atlantic regional director.
The land adjoins the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and another 400 acres acquired by the Rappahannock Tribe in April. It will mark the tribe’s second major land acquisition along the Rappahannock River.
“When you have large tracts of land permanently protected for habitat, fish and wildlife, scenic nature and conservation, it adds value to any new conserved adjacent lands,” said Hofmann. “The larger that connectivity gets, the higher the value of all of the conserved lands becomes, just from a purely habitat value.”
A second bidder listed in court documents was Fones Cliffs Development, LLC, with a final bid of $8,075,000. Virginia True Corporation’s shareholders, Benito R. Fernandez and Howard Kleinhendler, are also minority members in Fones Cliffs Development.
Virginia True Corporation had planned to develop a hotel, luxury condos and federally funded housing on the property. Prior to that, it had planned to construct an 18-hole golf course and a large resort subdivision.
Conservationists and Indigenous leaders strongly opposed the development of an area that is “from a cultural ecological standpoint just such an amazing place,” said Richards. Fones Cliffs provides habitat for one of the highest breeding densities of bald eagles throughout their native range, drawing in thousands of eagles on an annual basis, according to the Center for Conservation Biology.
Friends of the Rappahannock “is not anti-development,” Hofmann said. “There’s a good place, a better place, and an absolutely wrong place for development. You have to weigh the pros and cons of every development individually on its merits, and this was not a good place.”
Wetlands and inlets on the property will now be preserved for waterfowl habitat, while a large upland area will “provide excellent migratory songbird habitat, as well as habitat for other terrestrial animals,” said Richards.
Fones Cliffs holds significant cultural and historical value to the Rappahannock Tribe, which has called the region home for thousands of years. Capt. John Smith mapped three historic Rappahannock villages along the cliffs during a voyage in the summer of 1608.
“We all know that it’s culturally significant, but I think we’re just scratching the surface of knowing how culturally significant,” Richards said.
The property has been closed to the public under private ownership, so allowing the tribe “to go back and connect with the property and better understand what had been there is a really huge opportunity that we have now,” said Richards.
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