WARSAW, Va. (AP) — Twice a year, bald eagles from as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida flock by the thousands to a stretch of the Rappahannock River in Virginia for an all-you-can-eat buffet. They perch in trees atop pale cliffs rising along this river to the Chesapeake Bay and dive bomb the waters for shad, catfish, stripers and even waterfowl.
The gatherings of migratory eagles and the hundreds of nesting pairs nearby make this one of the most important places on the East Coast for bald eagles, according to conservation officials. Yet this bucolic scene is now threatened, they say, by a massive luxury resort proposed for nearly 1,000 acres atop cliffs where eagles wheel in the skies above.
The planned resort on Fones Cliffs has angered land preservation advocates, property owners and the researcher who chronicled the remarkable recovery of the bald eagle, once seemingly bound to follow the dodo into extinction.
Bryan D. Watts, one of the nation's top eagle experts, said the river stretch where the birds feed is a national "sweet spot" that offers the perfect menu and environment for nesting and migratory eagles alike. The luxury resort, he said, would drive eagles away.
"That level of human activity just isn't compatible with the amount of eagles that use that site," Watts said.
The developer of Fones Cliffs Resort and Spa, opponents add, has moved this environmental saga into the personal, attacking opponents as conservation extremists and baronial land owners intent on preserving the view from their vast holdings.
The developer denies that, and counters that the opposition is thwarting economic development and jobs the resort would bring to Richmond County, a rural locality of less than 10,000, two hours south of Washington and 90 minutes northeast of Richmond.
Even the nation's symbol is taking it on the beak in this battle. Pro-development forces call them scavengers.
"Eagles will knock on your door, walk in your house, sit on the La-Z-Boy and watch the football game with you," said Robert Coleman Smith, an attorney representing developer Allan Applestein. "The eagles are everywhere."
So far, Smith's arguments have prevailed: the Richmond County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in November to approve a zoning change needed for the development to proceed on Fones Cliff, which extends for several miles along the river.
But a who's who of conservation and environmental groups, as well as influential Virginia landowners, has vowed to oppose the project every step of the way. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has not ruled out legal action.
"The proposed Fones Cliffs Resort is the wrong project, at the wrong scale, in the wrong place, for numerous reasons," the foundation said in a lengthy analysis of the project.
Besides the eagles, development opponents cite the pristine environment and a history that includes Native Americans and Capt. John Smith, the pioneering Jamestown explorer who paddled the Rappahannock four centuries ago.
"The world would be just a little less colorful, a little less wild and a little less beautiful without places like Fones Cliffs," said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. The land-preservation group is hopeful federal funds will be made available to buy the property from Applestein.
Applestein, who has deferred to Smith, made his fortune by developing an automated chicken feeder. An August 2002 article in Institutional Investor described him as "an avuncular 70-year-old grandfather from Aventura, Florida." These days, Smith said, Applestein manages several investments.
Applestein bought the property in the late 1950s. The company, Diatomite Corp. of America, is named after the diatomaceous earth found at the site. The chalky, absorbent soil is used commercially in filters and cat litter, among other uses.
Applestein's interest in the property parallels the decline and the extraordinary revival of the bald eagle nationwide. Down to hundreds of nesting pairs in the 1950s in the lower 48 states, primarily due to the toxic legacy of the pesticide DDT, the eagles now number about 2,000 nesting pairs in the tidal regions of the Chesapeake Bay alone, Watts said.
Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology of The College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, conducts an annual census of the James and Rappahannock rivers. Nearly 500 pairs of eagles now nest along their banks, he estimates.
No eagles presently nest at the site of the proposed development, Watts said. But he added the real concern is the disturbance of the waters below where a banquet of fish attracts the migrating eagles.
"It elevates the importance of the site," he said. "We're not standing in line to oppose every development throughout the bay, but this particular site is different."
The National Audubon Society has identified the area as a birding center of global significance.
The proposed resort would include piers on the river below and hundreds of homes above, plus an 18-hole golf course, lodge and restaurant, among other features.
Smith, a native of this region called the Northern Neck, has vigorously represented Applestein. He has cast local opponents whose families date back generations on this land as interested more in their scenic views than the jobs and tax revenue the resort promises.
Hill Wellford, whose Kendale Farm is directly across the Rappahannock from Fones Cliffs, has countered Smith with paid ads in the local newspaper. He criticized Smith for his "bizarre anti-government" statements and accusations that a "conservation cabal" opposes the development.
Smith even had to contend with his godfather speaking out against the project.
"All of these personal attacks — that just bothered me," said W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., a former Virginia legislator and secretary of natural resources who is considered perhaps the state's foremost environmentalist.
Smith insists the attacks were not personal. As for Murphy, Smith says, "I'm 56 years old and I get a birthday card from him every year. I think the world of him but we're on opposite sides of the spectrum here."
For now, Smith's position is prevailing with local officials eager to perk up the local economy.
"I'm all for preservation," Smith said, "but I'm also for people having to eat and raise their families."
Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York contributed to this report.
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