Left to right: George Little, Brian Siff and Bill Rhoades want to prevent a project that could permanently alter the James River. Photo by Jay Paul
For Brian Siff and his boyhood friend George Little, the James River offered more than a place to fish and while away the hours. Both boys struggled with dyslexia. The river, with its outdoor classroom full of unwritten lessons about science, math, environment — even poetry — was their favorite teacher.
"Our world was away from school," says Siff, recalling fond hours nearly four decades ago spent learning to love and respect the unbridled power of the meandering James, which flowed past the Littles' eastern Henrico property and the nearby Curles Neck Farm. The lifelong friends, joined by Little's neighbor Bill Rhoades, recite the most important lesson the river teaches: Don't mess with Mother Nature.
That lesson drives their effort to stop a project they say threatens irrevocable injury to Curles Neck and its rare tidal estuary marsh. Siff, Rhoades and Little contend that a proposed permanent dike — to replace a makeshift dike from the late 1960s — will turn the marsh into a private freshwater lake, a lush duck-hunting preserve, at the expense of endangered native fish species.
The property's current owners, millionaire Henrico developer Tommy Pruitt and billionaire philanthropist Bill Goodwin, are avid duck hunters, but they say Siff, Rhoades and Little are wrong. Instead, Pruitt says, the permanent dike he and Goodwin propose to build would protect a sensitive wetland habitat from coastal flooding and sea-level rise.
"The James River in this area is very unique," says Siff, who fears the dike would also forever cut off public access to a state waterway (tidal waters are, by law, public).
Pruitt and Goodwin purchased the historic property for slightly more than $25 million in 2006. With its 5,500 acres of farmland and tidal marshes came a responsibility to care for it — but also a royal land grant dating from Colonial times that may trump modern laws surrounding surface access and the right to build dikes.
Pruitt says he and Goodwin worked hard to restore the property and may spend perhaps $1 million to fix the 2,500 feet of the current dike. He declined to provide Richmond magazine proof of the land grant's validity. "Basically, this is a marsh that we think has been [drowning], and will continue to drown," says Pruitt, frustrated by Siff, Little and Rhoades' opposition to his permit applications to the Virginia Marine Resource Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Without the dike, now deteriorating nearly 40 years after it was built, Pruitt says there will be no marsh, either for fish or fowl. "That [dike] was originally built to control the water level in the marsh," he says, adding "We're concerned now that sea-level rise is for real."
At a state permit hearing in May, Pruitt hoped to quickly secure his permit, the first step to installing the improved dike. Instead, the meeting lasted nearly a day. His three opponents questioned the validity of his science as well as the legality of the original dike — even a Colonial-era land grant. One hearing commissioner boiled the issue down: "Fish versus duck." Lawyers for Pruitt and Goodwin eventually struck a deal with the commission. A 6-2 vote approved the project, contingent on a plan to monitor the fish habitat.
"They act like they're saving something, but they're not," Siff says. "They're actually destroying the native plants and animals that would inhabit that area." That's unclear, says Mark Luckenbach, associate dean of research at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at the College of William & Mary. VIMS acted in an advisory role with the commission and is helping establish the habitat-monitoring plan. A clearer conclusion is that the dike "is managing for the purpose of duck hunting," Luckenbach says, unable to see any other justification for the dike's existence.
What is certain is historic Curles Neck Farm and its nearly 2,000 acres of verdant tidal flats is special. For hundreds of years, this unique bend in the river harbored native Virginia marsh grasses and wild rice, offering a protected haven for ducks and aquatic fowl. All manner of marine life lives here too; now-threatened species like Atlantic sturgeon, American eel, blueback herring and alewife may spawn here, Luckenbach says.
A parade of institutional, political and civic leaders support Pruitt and Goodwin. Others with an eye on conservation advocate caution. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a letter before of the May hearing expressing concern for possible fish spawning grounds.
A wetland expert with 30 years of field and regulatory experience, familiar with the project after Siff contacted him previously, told Richmond magazine he couldn't speak publicly because his company does business with Pruitt and Goodwin. But, he says, he harbors concerns about the potential effects of a permanent dike. "By all accounts the [permit] hearing was like a kangaroo court," he said on condition that his name not be used. "You don't just monkey around with tidal wetlands. [But] the decision was already made before the hearing was ever settled." He says Pruitt's concern over sea-level rise, cited in the permit request, is not valid — according to state regulations — as cause to grant a permit.
Pruitt declined to directly address the experts' points. He counters that the reason for the lack of public opposition beyond that of Siff, Little and Rhoades is that the decision for the dike is based on science and a genuine desire to protect Curles Neck. "Bill Goodwin and I have basically pledged for our lifetime that Curles Neck will never be developed," Pruitt says. "These are things that are going to live on beyond our lifetime.