An organic farmer in Virginia is accusing the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) of harassing her family for eight years under a conservation easement that state officials recently discovered has “serious flaws” – including what experts say is a “fabricated” claim that Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson slept on her farm during the Civil War.
Virginia Conservation Conspiracy, Corruption & RICO Oh My!
Rumors of PEC involvement in conspiracy, corruption, collusion and even RICO claims swirl around Virginia’s conservation program. The Daily Signal’s investigative journalists were the first to break the story. However, Boneta cautions not to blame the entire conservation program on the abusive bad acts of the PEC adding “I consider myself to be a conservationist. I love the land and just want to be left alone in peace to grow my heirloom vegetables and care for my beehives and critters.” A farmer that purchases a farm with an agricultural easement should be able to farm without being harassed and abused by a Virginia Land Trust.
Martha Boneta’s family bought the 64-acre “Liberty Farm” from PEC in 2006. The farm in located in Fauquier County, which made national headlines in 2012 for charging Boneta with violating local zoning laws by hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls. Turns out substantial FOIA documents show that Fauquier County officials were acting in collusion with the PEC.
Shady Land Deal Uncovered
As a condition of the sale, PEC placed the land under a conservation easement, a legally-binding document that limits future development rights, but does not Permit the PEC to act like jack booted bully thugs. One of many highly suspicious and unusual actions of this land deal, was that PEC, a 501(c)3 land trust, owned the farm and simultaneously gave themselves the easement. Martha Boneta never received any conservation tax credits or benefit from the easement that PEC curiously filed seconds before transferring title to Boneta. Over the past eight years, Boneta and PEC have been embroiled in a bitter battle over disturbing PEC actions, which have been characterized as “invasive and abusive.” FOIA (Freedom of Information) documents shows that PEC entered in to a “Confidential Joint Litigation Agreement” with realtors three years after Boneta purchased the farm that included well documented attempts to purchase Boneta’s mortgage, numerous coordinated efforts that included contacting VDOT, animal control, even having three armed sheriffs interrogate students volunteering at Boneta’s harvest.
Also the subject of national media scrutiny is the alleged PEC scandal involving the IRS. Margaret “Peggy” Richardson, who was formerly Clinton’s Commissioner of the IRS, currently is on the Executive Board of Directors with the PEC. Her husband, John Richardson, simultaneously sits on the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) Board of Directors. The Richardson’s neighbor, former PEC Board Member and current Fauquier Supervisor, Peter Schwartz, publicly disclosed that Boneta was the subject of an IRS Audit before her family ever received the actual audit. This IRS scandal is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Doctored Easement Documents and Fake Historical Claim
Boneta asked the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a public agency that oversees easements in the commonwealth, to step in to help resolve the dispute. Last November, VOF’s board voted 6-0 to take over the easement, and ordered its staff to conduct a thorough review of all documentation submitted by PEC. Boneta played a horrifying video of a PEC inspection that left many in the audience in shock of the terrorizing abuse that Boneta had endured that included PEC’s staff standing on Boneta’s chairs to peep in to her attic, inspecting her toilets and bathrooms and laundry. One audience member cried, because the PEC inspection video reminded her of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, that endured similar Nazis inspections.
According to the Dec. 19, 2005 Baseline Easement Documentation Report (BDR) PEC prepared shortly before the sale, “the Property contains an Oak Grove that is recognized as the heart of the bivouac of General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s men on the evening of July 18, 1861 after a strenuous march from Winchester, Virginia. After a night’s rest, the march resumed to then Piedmont Station (now Delaplane) to board the train by which the troops traveled to the 1st Battle of Manassas during which General Jackson earned his nickname.”
However, after an exhaustive search by several state agencies and civil war historians, there is “no accurate historical proof” of PEC’s Stonewall-Jackson-slept-here claim.
“I think that’s sort of the way it is,” a VOF spokesman told a reporter when asked if the claim “Stonewall Jackson slept here” was fabricated, referring to an obscure reference in an 1866 biography entitled “The Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-General Jackson” – the only evidence submitted by PEC to document its claim.
Page 212 of the bio states that Jackson’s men “paused for a few hours’ rest at the little village of Paris, upon the eastern slope of the mountain. Here General Jackson turned his brigade into an enclosure occupied by a beautiful grove…”
The “grove” could apply to any stand of trees in and around the nearby town of Paris, Va. Moreover, the town designations, names and roads have changed significantly since the 1800s. After considerable research, one Virginia Civil War historian states “Not only did Stonewall not sleep on that farm, but there is no historical documented evidence whatsoever to explain PEC making such a bold claim.”
The PEC has also been accused of using the easement as an excuse to conduct “very invasive and abusive inspections that violated our rights and our privacy,” including looking into her closets and cupboards and photographing her personal possessions and laundry without her permission. PEC’s well documented communications with realtors and county officials and secretive “Confidential Joint Litigation Agreement” with realtors, paint an ugly picture of a power hungry out of control land trust.
“My family purchased the farm in good faith. We trusted the PEC did their due diligence. The PEC has a duty to adhere to the Conservation Easement Act and make sure the easement is accurate. In just the past few weeks, we just discovered that there are serious flaws to the easement that the Piedmont Environmental Council created that we knew nothing about,” Boneta told reporters.
“And my family made signs, we advertised that Stonewall Jackson camped on our farm, we did all of this because we trusted that the easement was accurate because the PEC had a duty to make sure that the easement was accurate.
“To put something as important as Virginia’s Civil War history into a legally- binding, contractual government-supported easement document is very serious,” Boneta said.
“This PEC forced me, under threat, to fence off the entire Oak Grove, claiming that it was ‘hallowed ground,’ which is a term of art that these types of environmentalists use to refer to ground where a battle has taken place, where there’s been bloodshed.
“What PEC has done is act as “government by proxy” and they have committed a taking of my family farm. The PEC admitted they had no authority to force me to fence off a substantial portion of my farm, but they have never compensated or reimbursed my family.”
Following a December 5th meeting with Boneta and PEC at its headquarters in Richmond, VOF attorney Kerry Hutcherson stated in an email that the public agency had discovered “serious flaws” in the easement documents, including two conflicting versions of the BDR. VOF memo states:
“Our staff has spent a great deal of time researching the history of the project, compiling all documentation, and examining both the existing deed of easement, as well as the Baseline Documentation Report (BDR)… we found a number of serious flaws in both the easement and the BDR,” Hutcherson stated in an email.
“It is possible that the ambiguous language of the easement could jeopardize our ability to enforce the easement in perpetuity. As such it would be imprudent to take on what we thing may by an indefensible liability for the Commonwealth, especially in light of the controversy surrounding this property,” Hutcherson noted, adding that the Virginia Attorney General’s office “also has serious concerns about the current deed and BDR.”
There is tremendous public trust that goes into these land trusts. The entire conservation program is paid for by Virginia tax dollars in the amount of $100 million dollars per year. It is disturbing to know that such blatant disregard for landowners is taking place at the expense of the citizenry. To discover that the PEC fabricated this historical significance is really baffling. Fighting back tears, Boneta says “Nobody should have to endure what my family has suffered for eight years.”
Land Grabs, Lies & Videotapes
Martha Boneta never received a dime in tax credits or benefit of any kind from the PEC’s questionable easement transaction that took place seconds before transferring title to Boneta. While PEC receives “all types of government funding and benefits because of having properties in easement, but there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability, there’s no best practices, there’s no standards.”
One of the arguments the PEC wrongfully makes to defend PEC’s abusive inspections is that Boneta somehow purchased the property at a discounted rate and therefore PEC is not responsible for eight years of “terrorizing, harassing, abusive conduct.” However, Fauquier County land records discredit PEC’s claim. Boneta negotiated the contract to purchase Liberty Farm BEFORE the easement was ever placed on the property. In fact, Boneta paid far above full market value since Boneta paid the full value the county had assessed the farm at with no easement whatsoever. Records show the farm was never placed in “Land Use” either prior to Boneta’s purchase. The County government records and appraisals from 2006 further demonstrate yet another credibility problem for the PEC.
Virginia Landowners Beware & Be Damned!
Despite all of the bizarre and suspicious actions of the PEC surrounding this land deal, the PEC is still refusing to correct this unenforceable easement that is the fault of the PEC, so that VOF can take it over.
With no regard to the Boneta family and the eight years of hardship her family has suffered, PEC has placed a dark cloud over conservation in Virginia. Virginians are demanding a full blown investigation and that PEC’s 501(c)3 status revoked. The American Policy Center circulated a petition calling for a Congressional Investigation as well.
In the meantime, HB1488 is before The Virginia General Assembly that calls for transparency and accountability as well as protections for land owners. Shockingly, the PEC has hired a lobbyist to fight the bill. PEC is only willing to agree to the bill terms, provided that no landowner with a PEC easement may ask a Virginia state agency for clarification without first obtaining PEC’s permission.