Wildlife vs. development: Bald eagle may lose out to golf course in Virginia

© RappahannockRiverValleyNWR
Bald eagles may lose a popular nesting spot on the cliffs along the Rappahannock River in central Virginia in favor of a golf course. Richmond County has approved a rezoning request to turn the majestic avian habitat into a sprawling luxury resort.

Diatomite Corporation of America asked the Richmond County Planning Commission in February to rezone its land along the Fones Cliffs section of the river so it could build a 1,000-acre development on the site. The company has owned the tract of land since the 1950s. The county’s Board of Supervisors recently approved that rezoning, the Washington Post reported.

The resort will “celebrate the history and culture of the Northern Neck,” Rob Smith, Diatomite’s zoning attorney, told the Planning Commission at the meeting. Plans call for a 116-room lodge, 18 guest cottages, academics and recreation, 150-seat restaurant, championship golf course, equestrian center, 718 homes and a village on Luke’s Island.

However, building the resort will destroy the habitat of bald eagles that nest in the area as hundreds of trees are cleared to make way for the golf course and buildings, critics of the project say. More than 200 breeding bald eagle pairs nested along the Rappahannock in 2015, according to the Center for Conservation Biology. As many as 20,000 of the iconic birds visit to feed during the migratory seasons.

“This is a global hot spot,” Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, told the Washington Post. “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.”

“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,” he added.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has also come out against the project, and previously attempted to buy the land from Diatomite, the Post reported.

“Bald eagles prefer mature canopy trees that overlook the many creeks in the area and the tidal portions of the Rappahannock River,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said on its website, referring to the area within its Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. “The river is a popular spot for wintering bald eagles with the highest concentrations found on Cat Point Creek. Westmoreland, King George, and Essex counties contain the highest numbers of breeding pairs in the state.”

Smith believes that opposition to the project ‒ which Diatomite predicts will increase Richmond County’s tax base by nearly 40 percent ‒ is simply a case of NIMBYism, meaning “not in my backyard.”

“You feel like you’re being shot at all the time,” the Post reported him saying, citing court records.

Smith noted the rebound of the bald eagle population in the US, especially in Virginia, since the iconic birds were nearly destroyed in the 1970s, saying they appear to be everywhere in the state and “will nest at airports, on a chimney, at nuclear power plants.” The species is considered to be one of the biggest success stories of the Endangered Species Act, and the eagle was removed from the endangered list in 2007.

“It’s a false assumption that man and nature can’t co-exist,” he said

A neighboring property owner disagreed with Smith, saying that the eagles are the area’s biggest draw, and that Richmond County won’t receive the expected tax revenue from Diatomite’s real estate development.

“The vision is not to be against development, but to focus on how to protect essential natural features, spawning crabs and bird habitat,” Hill Wellford, whose 2,200-acre property sits along the Rappahannock, told the Post.