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  • James Baron

Heron nesting site dedicated at Crow's Nest in Stafford County

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

Perhaps the largest great blue heron colony in the Chesapeake Bay region is located in Stafford County.

That message was joyously shared among those gathered at a Tuesday morning ceremony at the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, thanks to a 70-acre heronry easement that was donated to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation by the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. While the underlying property is still owned by NVCT, the heronry is now officially part of the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve.

Stafford’s great blue heron colony site, which hosts 225–275 nests, is parallel with the marshy, low-lying area of Brooke Road. Even when nests are damaged or lost after major weather events, the herons consistently rebound and rebuild in the area.

Stafford County will support the DCR in managing the wildlife and natural resources in the Crow’s Nest preserve.

“We’ve offered behind-the-scenes help even before Crow’s Nest was open to the public, doing a lot of the preparation and assisting wherever we could,” said Kathy Baker, the county’s assistant director of planning and zoning.

“The event today means a lot to everyone in the county, everyone in the state for that matter,” said Supervisor Gary Snellings. “This is such a beautiful preserve.

“The citizens can come here anytime. It’ll always be there for them, their grandchildren, their children, and generations beyond.”

Tom Smith, deputy director of DCR, calls the Stafford peninsula an “ecological gem.”

“This was one of the greatest partnership projects that I have ever been involved in, and continues to be,” Smith said.

“This area, it’s very ecologically significant,” said NVCT’s Executive Director Alan Rowsome. “We talked to Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia and it’s not clear that anyone has a site like this with the proximity and the amount of heron nests per square acre.”

The 2,942-acre Crow’s Nest preserve is part of the Virginia Natural Area Preserves System, which protects some of the most significant natural areas in the state that feature rare plants and animals in lush forests, ponds, streams, marshes, and woodlands. According to DCR’s website, the system has 63 dedicated natural areas totaling 57,104 acres.

Smith said 28 years ago a survey was conducted to discover the most popular outdoor activities among survey participants.

“Natural areas didn’t even make the radar screen 28 years ago, the answer was, like, zero,” he said. “The most recent survey done in 2017 showed out of more than 40 outdoor recreational activities listed, visiting natural areas is now No. 1.”

Keeping Crow’s Nest in its natural state has been an uphill battle for local conservationists for the last 45 years.

While the majority of the Crow’s Nest peninsula was preserved in 2014, there are still privately owned properties nearby that conservationists would like to include in the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve.

The original 1970s plans for the area included a development named Crow’s Nest Harbour. Developers of that 4,500-acre community envisioned golf courses, marinas, an airport, a convention center, and schools, as well as single-family homes and townhouses.

By 1975, the developer filed for bankruptcy, leaving about 350 two-acre lots in limbo. Today, those lots are owned by people who mostly inherited them from family members who purchased them in the 1970s.

“Forty years ago, many people bought 2-acre lots in that area to build homes on, and what remains today is a mishmash of un-developable public and private property,” said Rowsome. “There are landowners paying taxes on property that’s un-developable.”

The land was eventually downzoned by county supervisors and plans for water and sewer services for the peninsula were also scrapped.

“Today, those lots are valued at about $8,000 each,” said Rowsome. “A handful of lots have been acquired by NVCT over the years, leaving a landscape throughout the preserve that’s not uniformly connected.”

“The county adopted a transfer of development rights program that the Board of Supervisors approved in 2015 that gives the opportunity for those landowners in Crow’s Nest Harbour to sell their development rights so that those lots cannot be developed as homes, but people still get money,” said Baker. “They can use the development rights in the receiving area which is in the Courthouse Road area, so landowners in that area can feasibly buy those development rights from these property owners and transfer it there.”

Cecilia Kirkman, a longtime advocate for Crow’s Nest, said for more than four decades, caring locals have been trying to make sure that all of Crow’s Nest is preserved from development.

“There are still large parts of the peninsula that are privately owned and, particularly with the Brooke VRE station being where it is, a lot of the area is still at high risk for development,” said Kirkman.

James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438

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