Revelations that a Virginia land trust inserted language into the terms of a conservation easement on a farm, without informing the state agency with which it shares oversight responsibility, have riled lawmakers in the General Assembly and garnered the attention of the commonwealth’s office of attorney general.
The news is but the latest development in the long-running dispute between Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta and the Warrenton, Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC). Once considered politically unassailable in Virginia, the PEC now finds itself increasingly isolated, as it tries to explain its conduct toward the farmer.
In 2006, Boneta purchased the 64-acre Liberty Farm from the PEC. On the day she closed on the property, the PEC filed a conservation easement on the farm. It was agreed that the PEC would share enforcement responsibility for the easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a quasi-state agency. While the VOF and Boneta have enjoyed a cordial relationship over the past eight years, the PEC’s intrusive enforcement of the easement, and Boneta’s spirited defense of her property rights, have drawn national attention and tarnished the PEC’s reputation throughout Virginia. Among the PEC most egregious acts are the following:
- The PEC, a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization, and the husband and wife real estate team of Phil and Patty Thomas, who are members of the PEC, lobbied a zoning administrator and elected members of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors to issue zoning citations against Mrs. Boneta’s property.
- According to a lawsuit filed by Mrs. Boneta, the PEC entered into a partnership with Phil Thomas to assist him in enforcing the conservation easement, either jointly or under Thomas’s name. In so doing, the PEC exceeded its authority to act as a qualified holder under the Virginia Conservation Easement Act.
- According to a “stewardship contact log” maintained by the VOF, an officer of the PEC contacted the agency on September 28, 2010, saying that “one of its board members runs a security company and could offer the use of security cameras to record visitors” to Boneta’s farm. The VOF emphatically refused the offer.
- During a June 12, 2014, inspection of Boneta’s farm by the PEC, the PEC representative admitted before approximately 20 eyewitnesses, including representatives of the media, that he didn’t know the terms of the conservation easement he was there to enforce.
At a dramatic public meeting of the VOF’s Board of Trustees in Richmond in early November, at which the allegations against the PEC were heard, the board voted 6-0 (with one abstention) to approve a resolution conveying the PEC’s enforcement authority over the easement to the VOF. It was left to Boneta and the PEC to work out the terms of the conveyance.
But as talks between the two parties got underway, the VOF discovered that the PEC, when it filed the easement in 2006, had inserted language into the conservation easement that rendered parts of the document invalid. According to the Daily Signal (Jan. 10), the VOF now says that unless the easement language is amended, the agency determined that “it would be imprudent” to assume control of what “may be an indefensible liability.” Virginia Assistant Attorney General Richard Mahevich agrees with that assessment.
“Bait and Switch”
“The PEC did a bait and switch and filed an easement that both the VOF and the attorney general agree contains erroneous and inaccurate claims,” Boneta told the Daily Signal. “It is imperative that state lawmakers act decisively to protect property rights and end abusive practices.”
Alarmed by the widely reported abuses by the PEC, members of Virginia’s General Assembly are expected to take up legislation in the coming session to set standards for the oversight of conservation easements, and to limit the amount of land a county can have under easements. Virginia is facing a $322 million budget gap, and conservation easements are estimated to cost the state’s taxpayers $100 million a year.
Who’s the Real Environmental Steward?
When Martha Boneta purchased the farm from the PEC in 2006, the property was a dump. Trash was strewn all over the place, and a tree was growing in the dilapidated barn. As far as anyone can tell, the PEC did nothing to restore the farm in the six years that it owned it. At great personal expense, Martha rehabilitated the property, turning it into the beautiful working farm that it is today. Instead of applauding Martha’s environmental stewardship, the PEC, which for years had been an absentee owner, has harassed her relentlessly.
There are people who want to drive Martha Boneta off her land. By forcing her to sell low, they can buy low, sell high, and line their pockets with the proceeds.
It’s not going to work. Martha is staying put.