Shakeup at Virginia land trust makes waves

Now the fox is in charge of the henhouse!

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.

HeatherRichardsHeather 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 termsBoneta2 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.

pecsIn 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.

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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.

  • Dorian

    Heather Richards is a communist. When she demanded to see inside a closet that has nothing to do with carrying out her duties of her job, it means that she wants to control everything because she thinks that everything belongs to her station. That is pure communist thinking.

    This is the problem today, government believes it has a right to decide everything in your life, and to determine what and how you should act and behave. People like Richards have no respect for private property, for they don’t believe that there is anything that can be called private property.

    Communism is back with a force. People today call it Liberals, or the Left. No Liberalism and Left Politics was something that was around during the first half of the 20th century. This is pure outright communistic behaviour …. and its back with a vengeance.

    Now when you need a McCarthy, there isn’t one!

  • Gregg Jones

    PEC has promised sooo much to preserve landmarks, environment, etc. and has delivered so little. Over 20 years ago, PEC fought Disney and won. PEC promised in their literature, slogans, etc. that it would preserve the heritage of Haymarket, the Carolina Rd/Rt 15, vistas, etc, but look at them today! Nothing was preserved. Haymarket is tar and cement! Rt 15 is becoming 4 lanes and worse. PEC pats itself on their back and claims “victory”. PEC does not work with local govt, they bully them. They have collected sooo much money and where has it gone? Mr. Cohen has written a very accurate story.

  • Toni B.

    NO ONE has the right even police without due cause. The fact that Richardson stayed on for several years after the closet inspection just proves the chokehold PEC and landowners elitists have on Fauquier county. VOF worries about it’s reputation.
    It is OK if Great Meadows down the street goes GLOBAL though. Dust, traffic not an issue anymore. Eat here, play here, Fauquier.

  • cc

    is there even one environmental activist who isn’t an out and out liar?

  • Joe Casey

    I thought a deed can be restricted by recording the restriction before the deed is recorded and then is enforceable as a contract. Boneta was in apparent flagrant violation of the recorded restrictions as they were published on the internet.