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Virginia enacts law to protect landowners from predatory land trusts

March 11, 2015

by Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.
CFACT

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 (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?

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

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