Virginia enacts law to protect landowners from predatory land trusts

In a stinging repudiation of the conduct of a Virginia environmental group once viewed as politically invincible, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) March 10 signed into law bipartisan legislation that — for the first time — provides rural landowners the means with which to defend themselves against bullying by land trusts.

The landmark legislation, introduced by Rep. Brenda Pogge (R-Williamsburg), sets up a mechanism under which landowners with conservation easements on their property can ask the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation to step in and mediate disputes with land trusts. Significantly, the Conservation Transparency Act creates a public record of the dispute, thereby establishing a level of transparency that has hitherto been lacking in the relationship between landowners with conservation easement and land trusts overseeing those easements.

Enactment of the new law represents a severe setback for the Piedmont Environmental Council Virginia flag(PEC), the Warrenton, Va.-based land trust that is locked in a high-profile conflict with farmer Martha Boneta. The PEC is co-holder of a conservation easement on Boneta’s 64-acre Fauquier County farm, and it waged a fierce, if futile, effort to defeat the legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.

Land Trusts Acting Like “Prosecutor, Judge and Jury”

“Until we had this legislation (now law), we had no transparency, accountability or standards placed on land trusts,” Boneta told the Daily Signal (Feb. 23). “As a result, groups like the PEC were making decisions acting like prosecutor, judge and jury, leaving the landowner with no alternative to full-blown litigation that is costly and time consuming.”

Indeed, it was the PEC’s police-state-like enforcement of the easement, and Boneta’s refusal to be intimidated by the well-funded green group, that gave birth to the new law. Documents brought to light under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and widely reported in the media show numerous transgressions on the part of the PEC. Among the revelations:

The PEC, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization, and a husband and wife real estate team, who are members of the PEC, lobbied the zoning administrator and elected members of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors to issue zoning citations against Boneta’s property.

According to a “stewardship contact log” maintained by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a state agency that co-holds the conservation easement on Boneta’s land, an officer of the PEC contacted the VOF on September 28, 2010, saying that “one of its board members runs a security company and could offer the use of security cameras to monitor visitors” to Boneta’s farm. To its credit, the VOF rejected this offer to snoop on Boneta’s property.

During a June 12, 2014 inspection of Boneta’s farm, the PEC’s representative admitted before about 20 eyewitnesses, including members of the media, that he did not know the terms of the easement he was there to enforce.

In luring Martha Boneta and other potential buyers to the property it then owned, the PEC claimed that Gen. Stonewall Jackson encamped on what is now Boneta’s farm on the night of June 18, 1861. The PEC included this claim of a Significant Historical Designation in the conservation easement on her property and forced her, at her expense, to fence off 20 acres to protect the site. Not only is there no evidence for this claim, as Civil War historians have attested, but the PEC made the same claim about a nearby property and included this fabrication in an easement it has on that property.

The conservation easement Martha Boneta signed when she closed on the property in June 2006 is NOT the easement the PEC filed with Fauquier County. The easement the PEC filed with the county contains different terms and does not bear Boneta’s signature.

Nationwide Implications

Given such well-documented evidence of misconduct by the PEC, it’s not surprising that the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. McAuliffe said, in effect: “Enough is enough.” The bill passed the House 87-9 and the Senate 32-5. This victory was made possible by the tireless work of thousands of volunteers who were determined to undo the harm that had been done to Martha Boneta.

The events in Virginia raise two intriguing questions: Are there other land trusts throughout the United States that have pulled similar shenanigans with unsuspecting landowners? Or are we to believe that the PEC is the only snake in the garden?

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

  • emmaliza

    The US became a prosperous nation largely based on property rights. If we lose them, we’re joining the 3rd world. This should be an issue on every state government, as the far left is well-funded and intends to destroy the model exhibited by the traditional freedom of the US…..

    • Gold Stars

      Making us 3rd world is every leftist progressives dream!!!
      Just ask Obama and his minions, of which I am sure several of the PEC aspired to.

      • alpha2actual

        Their vision is a Post Capitalist Utopian conformist society. Their most pressing challenge, how to redistribute wealth from the producers to the parasites.The liberal billionaire who clamors about sustainability likes progress. What he dislikes is the middle class with its mass produced cars and homes, cheap restaurants full of fatty foods and television sets and daily deliveries of cardboard boxes full of stuff and shopping malls. He thinks, in all sincerity, that they would be happier and more spiritually fulfilled as peasants. Beneath all the empty chatter about social riches and sustainability is that need to impose progressive misery. Beneath the glossy surface of environmentalism is a vision of the American middle class learning to dig through bags of garbage, the detritus of their consumerism for which they must be punished, to become better people.

        • Gold Stars

          Did you have Soros and Obama help write this for you????
          Anyone would be hard pressed to state this any better!
          Well put.

    • alpha2actual

      Actually the two primary prerequisites for a country to become developed are a strong rule of law (democracy) and strong property rights (individual). The degree to which the country develops is predicated on the amount of natural resources and inexpensive energy. Possessing all four of these prerequisites is why America is the world’s leading Economy.

      A countries’ GDP is correlated to energy usage and expense. Then greater the consumption of inexpensive energy the greater the attending GDP. This is the reality drives the Anthropogenic Global Warming anti fossil fuel junk science. This Agenda driven nonsense is designed to convert our present economy to an energy centric statist command economy.

    • Steve

      We lost property rights a long time ago with the inception of zoning regulations. Now tack on historical overlays, fed or state land grabs, court decisions like Kelo and we are nothing but tenant peasants at the mercy of your local permitting agencies who will decide for you what you can and more than likely, what you will not do on property you pay for but cannot do much with.

    • Russell C.

      Along with the dissolution of the EPA entirely.

  • lrn2play

    This is only the tip of the ice berg. Everyone is tired of the underhand way groups like this operate. Groups that started with the good intention of protecting the environment and such things have grown out of control and taken on Nazi like attributes. In the process turning the majority of people who once supported them against them. Like a lot of what’s going on today the pendulum must swing back to the center.

    • dje3

      It is NEVER about protecting anyone in the end, it is about POWER and MONEY.

  • Gold Stars

    Bait and Switch, this is what the left desires and uses everyday and why getting anything that resembles a straight or honest answer out of them is impossible.
    They are so far removed from the truth about anything it is just a fool’s errand to attempt to engage them in meaningful dialogue!
    “The conservation easement Martha Boneta signed when she closed on the
    property in June 2006 is NOT the easement the PEC filed with Fauquier
    County. The easement the PEC filed with the county contains different
    terms and does not bear Boneta’s signature.”
    If it was not for lying, they would have nothing to do or say!!!

  • moberndorf

    Conservation easements have been sold by the left, i.e., greenie envirofascsits, as beneign, warm and fuzzy ways to “protect” property. We in the movement to protect property rights have warned against these for years. Now we are starting to see emperical evidence of why. Thanks, Bonner, for an excellent article!

  • 4USA2

    Certainly this same kind of BS is going on in lots of other states. (1) Nevada … rancher who stood his ground but his cattle were shot …. and the government environmental whoever, claimed they were there to “save the dessert I think it was frogs … and we learned after the fact, Harry Reid’s son wanted all that land because he’d made some deal with some Chinese to let them buy that very same land (2) Texas Northern border ….. ??? (right where the boy scouts have their camp) was likely an attempt to take that land to control that river and water ?? (3) Idaho …. a couple who were building their home “on property they owned” and half way through were told that land was Federal preservation, whatever, whatever, but they had to fight it out in court also. (4) New Mexico …. government fenced off every way possible to keep a cattle rancher’s cattle from getting to the river for water and that was some alleged environmental reason. (5) Now the “bullet train” pushers want to take land from CA farmers …. take land from Texas ranchers …. etc. etc. The attempted confiscation of property is “one in the same” whether it’s alleged environmental control to save the frogs or fish or other, the Government wants control and it’s not for reasons that protect people!

  • dje3

    I was working in California with a group to stop the take over of private property for very limited public use.
    One of the liberals involved in this matter said to me “how else are we going to get property out of the hands of families and sold for other use, we need to break up large ownership”. I told her that she needs to read the Constitution and realize what she is saying. I told her to read it three times in one day, then every day for a week, then every other day…etc and finally to read it once a month for ten years..then at least every year thereafter. I told her she would figure it out and it will change her forever.

    This land had been owned by a family for generations. The family were cattle ranchers, they donated corners of thier land for rural schools and built the schools as well, they gave land to the government for pump and electrical stations because the guvernement needed it to provide infrastructure, they even donated a storage yard for road services.

    The enviro-whackos got legislation passed and used imminent domain to gain access and or ownership to private lands in the mountains…then they decided that all the “tanks” (small dams that were used to create water supplies for cattle) had to go. The land became worthless for cattle as the water was not retained.

    The next groups decided to move thousands of Tule Elk into the mountains there to help with thier reproduction and numbers…the problem was that the Tule Elk had never inhabited the Diablo Range….but they took to it. So a law was passed that no one could molest them or keep them from private water sources…..theft of water after destruction of water storage.

    My friends spent an average of $25000 a year repairing thier fences, and the Elk kept coming, tearing down fences, huge herds. They drank all the water every summer and the cattle…they had to be moved by late spring. Round them up, ship them to the central valley, pay for grazing, pay for water….they were going broke trying to do what was done without problem for 5 generations or more.

    THey asked the state to pay thier losses. The answer…we wont pay you anything but we will give you a license to kill one Elk for food if you like. They are not allowed to use M80’s or other means to scare the herds away. They are going to lose thier property to these thieves.

    Another group wanted to create “riding trail” that surrounds the entire San Francisco bay area….the problem is that there is no services and no water for tens and tens of miles. They obtained a “right of way” through private property for the trail. Splitting the property and creating a liability for the property owners…anyone can legally go through and if off the trail the owner is in laibiity of injury, on the trail there is still liability but arguement could be made. The trail would not fence it off, way too expensive and would not gain stop gap insurance and the government refused to pass a law that protects the land owner if someone moves off the trail.
    What kind of insanity is this? How about the people taking right of way to the city manager, mayor, counsel members’ back yards and side yards and allowing anyone that wants to to enter any time and not give stop gap coverage for injury on the private property? Would serve them right.

    I say that if the enviro-whackos and conservationists and land grabbers want to steal use of land that they MUST pay for it, I dont believe that the owner should have to sell it either. Payment should be the value for losses annually (income and acutal) incurred by by the owner for the taking of his property. Example…a toll road. I dont want to sell to the toll road. I should get my percentage of its total income after operational expenses. That simple. (150,000 cars a day times the percentage of number of feet in the toll run that includes my property less toll costs and depreciation). No right to make me sell to a private corporation running something under the false assumption that it is “public”. Toll roads are PRIVATE ROADS, whether or not they serve a public need.

    I also say that if they dont want to pay for it (the way the OWNER wants to be paid) then they should have to go around the owner and protect him.

  • Zoe Gamb

    Why aren’t these Perpetrators held Accountable by enforcement of Existing Laws, i.e Fraud and Filing False Official Documents?
    Send them to jail for at least 5 years.
    Then publish the proceedings nationwide.

  • Zoe Gamb

    Why aren’t these Perpetrators held Accountable by enforcement of Existing Laws, i.e Fraud and Filing False Official Documents?
    Send them to jail for at least 5 years.
    Then publish the proceedings nationwide.

  • Snaps

    Are there other land trusts throughout the United States pulling similar shenanigans? Yes, they are called the EPA.

  • John Lockwood

    The real question for me is a simple one; why don’t these people end up in jail? I thought fraud and intentionally filing false documents were crimes. If not, then maybe we need to push for more legislation!