UPDATE: See Press Release
|Martha Boneta, FTCLDF member and one of the “Nation’s 45 Amazing Women” according to Country Woman magazine
Sign the EMAIL Petition and send your own comments to the Virginia Senate Ag Committee.
Virginia farmer Martha Boneta thought her long-running dispute with a local green group was coming to an end. But now, that light at the end of the tunnel has gone dark again.
Efforts to reach a settlement with a local green group, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), are on hold. The PEC currently oversees enforcement duties of a conservation easement on Boneta’s property. Under the settlement, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) would have assumed those duties. However, the VOF found serious flaws with the agreement.
Now, the VOF wants Boneta and the PEC to agree on a “corrective amendment” to address the concerns. With little progress being made on that front, the VOF informed attorneys for both sides it would not take up the matter of assuming enforcement duties at its next meeting. “It appears, from communications made during the first weeks of December 2014, that we have not been able to reach a solution that is amenable to all parties,” Kerry Brian Hutcherson, the VOF’s staff counsel, wrote to PEC attorney Turner Broughton and William Hurd, the former Virginia solicitor general who represents Boneta.
Accordingly, the VOF staff does not anticipate that the VOF board will take formal action regarding the easement at the board’s upcoming public meeting on Feb. 26. Although we are still hopeful that a solution can be found, the VOF staff will consider this matter closed until the parties are willing to further negotiate.
Conservation easements are agreements property owners sign with conservation groups. The owners receive cash or tax considerations in exchange for accepting limits on development of their property.
Boneta purchased the 64-acre Liberty Farm in Paris, Va., from the PEC in 2006 with the easement already in place. Since then, in a case that has attracted national attention, Boneta has charged in lawsuits and elsewhere that the PEC has trespassed, conducted overly invasive inspections and even orchestrated harassment from the county government to force her off her property.
At the VOF’s board meeting in November, Hurd proposed that PEC hand over its enforcement of the easement to the VOF, which already enforces some of the agreement and has had good relations with Boneta. The board voted to accept the enforcement duties if the PEC and Boneta could come to an agreement. The groups agreed to meet again in December to iron out details of the transfer with an eye toward having it approved at the February meeting. After carefully examining the details of the easement, and other related documents, top officials with the VOF concluded the organization could not assume full oversight authority over the easement without a “corrective amendment” that would address “a number of serious flaws” it uncovered in the easement.
The Daily Signal obtained the records following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Unless the easement language is amended, the VOF has determined that “it would be imprudent” to assume control of what “may be an indefensible liability,” email messages included in the FOIA records show. Virginia Assistant Attorney General Richard Mahevich concurs with the VOF’s assessment, but the non-profit land trust, which co-holds the easement with the VOF, does not.
The problem stems from what is known as the Baseline Documentation Report (BDR)—the foundational document that describes what the easement permits and what it restricts. It is contradictory and ambiguous in several areas, according to the VOF’s analysis. “For instance,” wrote Hutcherson in a report to the VOF board, “the BDR anticipates two single-family dwellings and a pool, all of which are prohibited in the deed. But the deed represents the BDR as accurate and incorporates it by reference. The deed then goes [on] to prohibit any new buildings but articulates requirements for new buildings.”
The VOF could not go forward with an agreement that would “admit of several interpretations with respect to new buildings and their uses. And although there is agreement between the current owner and PEC that no new buildings are allowed, the only way to remedy this conflict and avoid a future dispute with a successive owner is to correct the deed now.” Both sides were willing to hand over easement enforcement as is, but the VOF refused, citing potential legal liabilities that would involve the commonwealth of Virginia. The VOF is a quasi-state, legislature-chartered organization. According to emails obtained by The Daily Signal through a FOIA request, the PEC is unwilling to cooperate on the corrective amendment. In one email, John Richardson, a member of the VOF’s board, writes that PEC president Chris Miller “described, from his point of view, a number of deficiencies in the analysis our people conducted of the operative deed and the BDR.”
Boneta, who withdrew a lawsuit when a settlement became possible but has until February to refile it, also is looking to push legislative remedies to what she and others have called the unfair, heavy-handed enforcement tactics of the PEC. “It is imperative that state lawmakers act decisively to protect property rights and end abusive practices,” Boneta said. “The PEC did a bait and switch and filed an easement that both the VOF and the attorney general agree includes erroneous and inaccurate claims.”
Broughton, PEC’s attorney, did not return calls seeking comment from The Daily Signal. But in a Dec. 10 email to the VOF, he said his client could not accept the amendment proposed by the VOF because it “would likely confer improper private benefits” to Boneta. That claim is “preposterous,” says Bonner Cohen, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “For eight years, she has been subjected to harassment and humiliation by the PEC’s reckless enforcement of the easement, and she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending herself. Whatever the original intent of Virginia’s conservation-easement statute,” Cohen said, “the PEC’s well-documented deplorable behavior calls out for the General Assembly to reform the program, lest other landowners be subjected to the hell she has gone through.”
Boneta’s case has generated interest in Richmond, where lawmakers have proposed two different bills providing for greater oversight of land trusts such as the Piedmont Environmental Council. With the General Assembly session set to begin this month, more than 4,000 people have signed a petition demanding reform.
Originally published January 10, 2015, by The Daily Signal, this edited version with photos and links is posted here by author’s permission.
YOUR FUND AT WORK
Services provided by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) go beyond providing legal representation for members in court cases. For instance, FTCLDF submitted comments in favor of FTCLDF member Martha Boneta over her dispute with the Piedmont Environmental Council at a November 6, 2014 hearing before the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
Educational and Political Action Services also provide an avenue for FTCLDF to build grassroots activism to create the most favorable regulatory climate possible. In addition to advising on bill language, FTCLDF supports favorable legislation via action alerts, social media outreach, and the online petition service.
You can help FTCLDF by becoming a member or donating today.
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All She Wanted to Do Was Farm, But an Environmental Group Got in the Way.
Published on November 5, 2014 – The Daily Signal
LANDMARK VIRGINIA VICTORY FOR PROPERTY RIGHTS!
HB1488 Conservation Transparency Act On Governor’s Desk!
Resulting from False Civil War Designation & Conservation Easement Misrepresentations
Bi-partisan HB 1488 passed the Virginia House and Senate with overwhelming support across party lines. This legislation allows a landowner to request that the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation use the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act to resolve a dispute relating to the interpretation of the easement. Until now, there were no protections for landowners or transparency of conservation holders.
HB 1488 resulted from an 8-year-long battle between Martha Boneta and the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a 501(c)(3) land trust required to adhere to guidelines for government sanctions “conservation”. The PEC was caught on video engaging in abusive inspections that involved interrogations and demands to inspect closets, attics and even photographing the farmer’s laundry. PEC is the subject of ongoing investigations of a false historical designation of Boneta’s Liberty Farm that was the basis for luring buyers and to place the land in “perpetual protection.”
Farmer Boneta is “still in shock” saying, “My family is stunned. No one should be taken advantage of this way.” For years, Boneta’s family promoted Liberty Farm as the “heart of Stonewall Jackson’s Bivouac” based on the government-sanctioned contract for sale that declared Liberty Farm as this significant piece of Virginia history. Turns out, it’s not true. Boneta says “I’m grateful to the General Assembly for creating laws to provide protections for landowners. It is testament to how much Virginia values farming, preserving our history and property rights.”
The American Policy Center created a petition in response demanding congressional and attorney general investigations of the PEC. “There is no legitimate historical proof whatsoever that Stonewall Jackson was ever on the farm.” Civil War historians are outraged, calling this fake claim a “blatant disregard for Virginia’s history.” A full account of PEC’s undocumented Stonewall Jackson claim can be read here.
Bi-Partisan Support for Landmark Property Rights Bill
HB 1488 is a bi-partisan compromise that was negotiated with conservation stakeholders as well as the farming community. Conservation Easements are meant to be a Win-Win for the landowner and the public. “When groups like the PEC violate the trust of the public, it calls into question the validity of the conservation program,” said Bonner Cohen of the National Center for Policy Research.
As a result of statewide public outrage that fueled thousands of petition signatures, the Virginia General Assembly just passed Landmark bi-partisan legislation; House Bill 1488 reins in land trusts that currently have no standards, accountability or transparency. This is a huge step forward to protecting property rights and farmer’s ability to be viable on the land. Boneta is positive about the future adding, “I consider myself to be a conservationist. I am thankful to have been able to work with members of the conservation community on developing legislation that is good public policy.”
Thanks to the work of FTCLDF member Martha Boneta, the Virginia Legislature has passed a law making it easier for farms under conservation easements to resolve disputes with the easement holder(s).
Susan Lider, Slider & Associates – [email protected] (703)866-3707