The abrupt departure of a high-ranking official from the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) is fueling speculation that the controversial land trust is feeling the heat from revelations of its transgressions against a Virginia farmer.
Heather Richards joined the PEC in September 2006, initially serving as director of land conservation and, from September 2011 to April 2015, as vice president for conservation and rural programs. Richards achieved national notoriety when a video was posted on the Internet showing her in an angry confrontation with farmer Martha Boneta. The PEC official was on Boneta’s farm to carry out an inspection in connection with a conservation easement the land trust co-holds on the property. In the video, Richards demands to see the contents of a closet in the farm’s barn. Boneta, standing her ground, refuses the demand, pointing out that the closet and its contents have nothing to do with the conservation easement.
Bait and Switch Conservation Easement
The video has since come to symbolize the intrusive, police-state tactics the PEC used in monitoring Boneta’s compliance with the terms of the conservation easement. It has since been learned that the conservation easement that Boneta jointly signed with the PEC on purchasing the farm in 2006 is not the easement the PEC filed with Fauquier County. As a result of this bait and switch, Richards was on Boneta’s land enforcing a conservation easement that the farmer had neither seen nor signed.
Further undermining the position of the PEC were disclosures that the land trust attempted to have surveillance cameras installed on Boneta’s property and that the Warrenton, Virginia, based organization had falsely claimed that Confederate General Stonewall Jackson had encamped on what is now her property on his way to the first Battle of Bull Run in June 1861.
With its reputation in tatters, the PEC has now shed the public face of the land trust’s abuse of Boneta. At the beginning of April, Richards’ name and photo were quietly removed from the PEC’s website. Her departure is a tacit acknowledgement by the PEC that public exposure of its treatment of Boneta had so severely damaged the organization that a head needed to roll.
Chair of the Land Trust Accreditation Commission
Heather Richards’ 8-1/2-year stay at the PEC may have ended unhappily, but she still is a force to be reckoned with in the land-trust universe. Since the beginning of the year, Richards has been serving as chair of the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a project of the Land Trust Alliance. As of February 25, 2015, the Commission had accredited 301 land trusts in 45 states and territories. Richards’ former affiliation, the PEC, is one of those accredited land trusts. Asked in an interview posted on the www.landtrustaccreditation.org website if she could tell a land trust only one thing about the commission, Richards responded as follows:
We’re just like you, and we have to live by these rules, too. Because we are professionals who have to work in this field for accredited land trusts, we understand what an accreditation process means to a land trust. Because we are you.
In saying “we’re just like you,” Richards may have revealed more than she realized. Just how similar to the PEC, Richards’ former employer, are the other land trusts the commission has accredited? Are we to believe that the PEC is the only land trust to have abused its power? As they grow in number and power, and increase the amount of private land they control, land trusts should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny that uncovered the misdeeds of the PEC.
In a bizarre twist to the tale, Richards says in another interview on landtrustaccreditation.org that she was “[b]orn and raised in Toronto, Canada.” But in response to the next question, she says “I was born and raised in northwestern New Jersey, 45 miles outside of New York City.” While her place of birth may remain a mystery, her place in the recent history of the Piedmont Environmental Council is no secret.
“Fox in the Hen House”
“Having Heather Richards chair the Land Trust Accreditation Commission is putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” says Martha Boneta.