Public comment period for DEQ consent order ends Aug. 9

More than 13 acres was illegally cleared in October 2017 near the Rappahannock River’s edge at the the Virginia True golf and resort development in Richmond County (Newland), Virginia. The above photo was taken in May 2018. – Photo by Robert A. Martin

For more than 10 months, Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) has kept eyes on the illegal land disturbance above Fones Cliffs in Richmond County. Now is the time to speak, said FOR Executive Director Kathy Harrigan.

“This was an egregious violation of basic erosion control and stormwater law,” she said. “ Now that DEQ’s consent order is available for review, I hope every FOR member will respond and let state officials, local officials, and especially the developer, know that this community cares about what happens in this watershed.”

On July 3 the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released its Proposed Special Order by Consent related to the Virginia True Golf Course in Richmond County. According to Kristen Sadtler, Water Enforcement Manager for DEQ, the order “…addresses violations involving land-disturbing activity without required approvals and plans, installation of proper controls, and stabilization measures.”

The order includes a civil charge of $42,000 imposed upon Virginia True Corp., the New York-based owner and developer of the golf course. Sadtler said the order is based upon DEQ guidance that considers the type and severity of the violation, includes corrective action Virginia True must take, and requires weekly reporting of compliance activities to DEQ.

“DEQ will be monitoring the required compliance at the Virginia true Golf Course site closely, and any identified violations will be addresses expeditiously and met with full enforcement authority by the agency, including engagement with the Attorney General’s Office,” said DEQ Executive Director David Paylor.

FOR has been closely monitoring the situation at Fones Cliffs since October 2017, when a concerned citizen alerted FOR River Steward Richard Moncure to land-clearing activity on the historically-significant area located a few miles upstream from Tappahannock.

Moncure confirmed tree-clearing and bulldozing operations were indeed taking place, and alerted Richmond County officials to the situation. It was ultimately determined that Virginia True had cleared more than 13 acres of land just above the environmentally-sensitive cliffs, prime nesting and roosting habitat for bald eagles, and culturally significant to the Rappahannock Tribe, one of Virginia’s eight federally-recognized Native American tribes.

“We’ve been working for 10 months with the developer, Richmond County officials, our partner groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and DEQ, to address this issue,” Harrigan said. “For much of that time there was little or no activity by Virginia True to fix this problem, other than complying with the county’s stop work order. The Stop Work order (issued by Richmond County on Nov. 30, 2017) was only lifted in June 2018.

“We are very pleased DEQ is enforcing the laws of Virginia pertaining to the land-disturbing activity on this property, and the lack of erosion controls, and the lack of a stormwater pollution prevention plan,” said Harrigan.

“However, I am not convinced the $42,000 civil penalty is adequate to cover the increased costs incurred by the county, and the state, in making the developer follow the rules that other developers routinely follow. I’m also not sure this will serve as a deterrent to the developer, who has shown such a willingness to flagrantly break the law.”

Harrigan said FOR members and others should respond to DEQ’s call for public comment by Aug. 9, and let officials, and the developer, know their opinions.

“We have to keep comments relevant to items addressed by the consent order,” she said. “In particular, the violations of state regulations, the assessed penalties and the Schedule for Compliance. Comments outside the parameters of the order may not be considered relevant by DEQ.

“DEQ shares these comments with the developer and the Richmond County Board of Supervisors,” Harrigan added. “They need to know we are watching and will respond to further violations.”

Virginia True owns nearly 1,000 acres along Fones Cliffs. The property was rezoned in 2015 for residential use. The developer had proposed a mixed-use development including a resort and spa, golf course, houses, and an equestrian center.

A general plan of development, and associated permit applications for the entire development, have yet to be submitted by the developer, nor have any applications been approved by the county and appropriate state agencies. FOR expects there will be future opportunities for public comment on the plans for the development. We will keep you posted as things progress.

Comments on the Proposed Special Order by Consent will be accepted until Aug. 9, 2018. They should be submitted to DEQ Water Enforcement Manager Kristin Sadtler at [email protected]

All comments will be considered prior to DEQ presenting a final recommended enforcement action to the State Water Control Board. The public notice and the draft order can be found at https://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/Enforcement/PublicNotices.aspx

By Woodie Walker, FOR Community Conservationist