By Kevin Mooney | From The Daily Signal
Martha Boneta says a regional conservation group has trespassed repeatedly on her small farm in Paris, Va., about an hour outside Washington, D.C. Boneta says the group, the Piedmont Environmental Council, has attempted to drive her off the farm through overzealous zoning enforcement, unwarranted and overly invasive inspections and an IRS audit she says was instigated by one of its board members. The group argues that it has done nothing more than perform its duty to enforce a legal agreement with Boneta and decries the failure “to see eye-to-eye” with Boneta on how to do so.
He Said, She Said, Court Said
The dispute has had this he-said, she-said quality to it for years. But recent events have brought increased scrutiny of the actions of the Piedmont Environmental Council, which was founded in 1972 and bills itself as “one of the most effective community-based environmental groups in the country.” Among them: A court ruling scaled back the organization’s inspection rights on Boneta’s 64-acre Liberty Farm. A judge sided with a winery owner in a similar dispute with the habitat preservation group Ducks Unlimited. And documents revealed that a member of the group’s board wanted to put spy cameras on Boneta’s property. And now, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, listed as a co-holder of the conservation easement at the center of the dispute, will afford 20 minutes each to Boneta and the Piedmont Environmental Council to explain the situation as part of its regular board meeting to be held Thursday, Nov. 6, in Richmond, Va.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is a public agency with a board of trustees that meets at least three times per year to take up easement enforcement and policy matters, help preserve open lands and solicit private donations for preservation purposes. The foundation, created by the Virginia General Assembly in 1966, has no power to constrain the actions of the Piedmont Environmental Council or other conservation organizations and no oversight role in state law. But the fact that an agency with a stake in the easement at issue in the case of Boneta’s farm is holding a hearing to examine the actions of the other co-holder suggests a tipping point in the tussle. Bonner Cohen, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., a pro-property rights group that has studied the dispute, said the Virginia Outdoors Foundation has “good reason to be concerned” about the environmental council’s “abuse of its … authority.” Cohen said:
There is nothing in the conservation easement that gives the PEC the power to harass and humiliate Martha Boneta, as the organization has repeatedly done over the years. The only way to put an end to this outrageous behavior is to sever the PEC from any responsibility for the easement.
The Piedmont Environmental Council declined comment for this story.
Courts and Courts of Public Opinion
Easements are agreements that landowners enter into with government, quasi-government or private conservation entities in which the landowners receive tax breaks or other benefits in exchange for foregoing development of their property. The easement on Boneta’s farm permits commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural uses. Boneta bought her farm from the Piedmont Environmental Council in 2006 with the easement attached. According to county tax records, though, she never received tax breaks for it. She has spent most of the intervening years fighting the group in court. In 2009, the group sued Boneta after an inspection for compliance with the easement compliance turned up agricultural tires and an expandable hose attachment used to wash the mud off visitors’ boots. The group claimed the hose and tires compromised the “viewshed” of the area. The matter was settled out of court. But at the time, the Piedmont Environmental Council noted Boneta had made improvements to a barn complex and a blacksmith shop called “The Smithy.”
Although she is permitted under the easement to make these changes, the environmental group claimed she made them so she could install apartments and rent them as residential dwellings in violation of the easement. That claim brought two more years of litigation, which resulted in a settlement agreement reached on Oct. 11, 2011. The environmental group had to stipulate Boneta didn’t have apartments on the property, and Boneta had to agree to allow four inspections a year to ensure she didn’t build any. Last fall, Boneta filed a lawsuit in Fauquier County Circuit Court that said the environmental council and two of its members, the husband-and-wife real estate team of Phillip and Patricia Thomas, had taken another tack. Her suit said the Thomases lobbied a zoning administrator and members of the elected Fauquier County Board of Supervisors to issue citations of zoning violations against her property. That suit has not gone to trial.
Zoning Changes Give Rise to ‘Boneta Bill’
Boneta has had better luck in the Virginia General Assembly. In 2013, she and others convinced lawmakers to pass legislation that came to be known as the Boneta Bill. The measure strengthens property rights and redefines what constitutes “farm activities” to prevent localities from imposing overly burdensome regulations on family farms throughout Virginia. Boneta began to rally support for the legislation in August 2012, when Fauquier County fined her for having a children’s birthday party in her barn. But the state’s protection of property rights hasn’t stopped the Piedmont Environmental Council from overzealous enforcement of the easement, Boneta says. She has claimed, and those who have visited Liberty Farm during inspections agree, that the preservation group has looked through her personal belongings and gone far beyond what was needed to measure for the size of an apartment. Boneta called the inspections “trespassing” and a “fishing expedition for which it has no basis” in her counterclaim to the group’s 2009 suit.
Brett C. Glymph, executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, told The Daily Signal the foundation doesn’t authorize or condone any of the Piedmont Environmental Council’s actions at Liberty Farm, but it can’t do much about them.
Glymph said: “The PEC is responsible for the building structures and the architecture, while the VOF has its own areas such as the Oak Road Forest and the land itself. We administer our part; they administer theirs.”
Security Cameras Turned Down
Although Glymph would not discuss the litigation between the environmental group and Boneta, she did say Boneta has caused no trouble for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and that her organization turned down the environmental council’s entreaty to install surveillance cameras on the farm.
Memoranda uncovered by The Daily Signal revealed that Heather Richards, who serves both on the environmental group’s board and as its vice president of conservation and rural programs, suggested putting in the cameras to monitor Boneta’s activities. The foundation declined, and the project did not go forward. “We have never thought that security cameras were necessary,” Glymph said. “Up until now, this is not something that has been in our toolkit, and I don’t think it’s something the VOF would employ.” A similar dispute a few miles north of Boneta’s farm, in Loudoun County, Va., indicates momentum in the courts could be in her favor. Ducks Unlimited, the waterfowl and wetlands conservation group, alleged 14 easement violations by the owner of Chrysalis Winery. A Loudoun County judge sided with the winery and ruled the easement provided ample room for “evolving” agricultural activities. If the Nov. 6 hearing does reveal the Piedmont Environmental Council has overstepped its bounds, friends of Boneta and property rights activists are poised to take action. William Hurd, a former solicitor general — or chief legal defender — of Virginia, is among those who will testify on behalf of Boneta. “We are carefully reviewing the options,” Hurd said, adding:
Conservation easements can be wonderful things, but it is evident the PEC has abused its authority as an easement holder. The situation cries out for either a judicial or legislative solution.
Hurd said he hasn’t settled on a remedy. But Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center, a Virginia group that champions free markets and property rights, has called for a congressional investigation of the environmental council. DeWeese also proposed a change in state law to allow property owners to opt out of easement agreements after five years. “Right now the easements exist in perpetuity, and this is a problem because there is no real oversight for how they are managed,” DeWeese said. “The PEC can move the easements around to the government and other land trusts. But the landowner is stuck forever with the easement.” Please share your thoughts by commenting below.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for The Daily Signal. @KevinMooneyDC