Green Group Under Scrutiny for Trespassing at Woman’s Farm

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 “Agen­da 21 in Action”

The fol­low­ing account illus­trates the local cor­rup­tion going on in com­mu­ni­ties across the world. Some peo­ple stand up – work­ing to sal­vage lib­er­ty for all of us. Thank you Martha Bone­ta! May your town sup­port you and the rest of Amer­i­ca as well.

Martha Boneta

Martha Bone­ta

Robert Marmet knew he was sup­posed to inspect Martha Boneta’s farm, but he didn’t know exact­ly what for. He knew there were lim­its on what he could inspect, but he had no idea where they were.

So when Marmet, a senior ener­gy pol­i­cy ana­lyst with the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil, and his part­ner Mike Kane, a con­ser­va­tion offi­cer with the group, turned up June 12 to inspect Boneta’s Lib­er­ty Farm in Paris, Va., they more or less inspect­ed what they want­ed to inspect.

They walked through the upstairs and down­stairs por­tion of the barn that sits on the prop­er­ty. They inspect­ed every room within—bathrooms, clos­ets, stor­age rooms and offices. They looked over the farmer’s per­son­al effects and even toured the base­ment area of the barn that housed some of the ani­mals. They inspect­ed “The Smithy,” an his­tor­i­cal struc­ture on the prop­er­ty that was once a black­smith shop. They stood on chairs to peer into the loft area.

Martha Bone­ta’s farm is sub­ject to reg­u­lar and rig­or­ous inspec­tions — some say too rig­or­ous — by an envi­ron­men­tal group that enforces her easement.

Martha Boneta’s farm is sub­ject to reg­u­lar and rig­or­ous inspec­tions — some say too rig­or­ous — by an envi­ron­men­tal group that enforces her easement.

What were they look­ing for? They were there on behalf of the PEC to enforce an ease­ment on Boneta’s prop­er­ty. Ease­ments are doc­u­ments prop­er­ty own­ers sign that com­pen­sate them for agree­ing to with­hold land from com­mer­cial devel­op­ment. In Boneta’s case, the PEC accused her in a pre­vi­ous law­suit of vio­lat­ing the agree­ment in a num­ber of ways, the main one of which was to oper­ate apart­ments on the property.

An agree­ment to set­tle that suit required PEC to acknowl­edge the accu­sa­tion was false and Bone­ta did not have apart­ments on the prop­er­ty, but it per­mit­ted PEC to “mea­sure for the size of an apart­ment.” This inspec­tion obvi­ous­ly went far beyond that.

Bone­ta claims in a law­suit filed last month in Fauquier Coun­ty Cir­cuit Court the inspec­tions are part of a pat­tern of harass­ment. Her case accus­es Peter Schwartz, a mem­ber of the elect­ed Fauquier Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors and for­mer mem­ber of the PEC board of direc­tors, of, among oth­er things, telling zon­ing offi­cials he wants the rules “aggres­sive­ly enforced” with regard to the farm.

She also claims PEC should not be allowed to be involved in the enforce­ment of the ease­ment. She said before the PEC sold her the farm in 2006, it owned both the prop­er­ty and the ease­ment, which is ille­gal under Vir­ginia law.

Almost all prop­er­ty own­ers with ease­ments must endure rou­tine inspec­tions by the land con­ser­van­cies or oth­er orga­ni­za­tions that enforce the ease­ments. Usu­al­ly, they are low-key and friend­ly. Landown­ers are apprised of vio­la­tions, and the sides work togeth­er to address them.

This is not the case with Martha Boneta.

A law­suit Bone­ta filed seeks to halt inva­sive inspec­tions of her farm by the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Council.

A law­suit Bone­ta filed seeks to halt inva­sive inspec­tions of her farm by the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Council.

She told Marmet and Kane when they entered her prop­er­ty in June they could inspect only what the ease­ment lan­guage allows. “It’s very clear,” she said. And if they “exceed what the lan­guage says, it is con­sid­ered tres­pass­ing. In the past, you have demand­ed to inspect my clos­ets and have pho­tographed my per­son­al pri­vate pos­ses­sions, and this exceeds your authority.”

Marmet replied that, yes, he is an attorney—and a for­mer judge, accord­ing to his bio on the PEC website—but he is not licensed to prac­tice law in Vir­ginia and is not famil­iar with the terms of the ease­ment. If he was about to vio­late any of its terms, he told Bone­ta, “I ask that you give me notice.”

At which point, Mark Fitzgib­bons, an attor­ney and neigh­bor who has sup­port­ed leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect tra­di­tion­al farm­ing prac­tices from intru­sive zon­ing rules, stepped in. “The PEC has been placed on notice,” Fitzgib­bons told Marmet. “The oblig­a­tion is on you, not Martha Bone­ta, to know what the ease­ment terms are.”

Fitzgib­bons told The Dai­ly Sig­nal the inspec­tions have got­ten out of hand. “From what I’ve observed, these inspec­tions are being con­duct­ed with an agen­da greater than ensur­ing fideli­ty to the ease­ment,” he said.

It does seem to me the PEC has crossed a line. They are going any­where and every­where across Martha’s prop­er­ty, and it does seem exces­sive. So, either they do not know what the ease­ment terms real­ly say, or they do know and are push­ing bound­aries of their ease­ment author­i­ty. Also, if the terms of ease­ment are vague, they are to be con­strued against the inspec­tor, which opens the issue of trespassing.

Fitzgib­bons is not alone in think­ing the PEC has gone too far with its han­dling of Bone­ta. Sev­er­al recent events sug­gest frus­tra­tion with the orga­ni­za­tion and what many view as its heavy-hand­ed tac­tics may be reach­ing crit­i­cal mass.

There is Boneta’s law­suit, in which she claims the PEC “attempt­ed to con­vince the [coun­ty] zon­ing admin­is­tra­tor and oth­er local gov­ern­ment offi­cials” to issue zon­ing cita­tions against her farm—and plen­ty of email and writ­ten cor­re­spon­dence obtained through Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests to sup­port her version.

Martha Boneta beekeepingThere is some­thing called the Bone­ta Bill, signed into law by Ter­ry McAu­li­ffe, Virginia’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor, and effec­tive July 1. The leg­is­la­tion, which pre­vents local author­i­ties from requir­ing spe­cial-use per­mits for con­ven­tion­al farm­ing activ­i­ties out­lined in the law, proves mem­bers of Virginia’s Gen­er­al Assem­bly rec­og­nize the prob­lem and have sym­pa­thy for Boneta.

The ‘Bone­ta Bill,” which became law in Vir­ginia on July 1, allows farm­ers to engage in farm­ing activ­i­ties, such as bee­keep­ing, regard­less of easements.

The ‘Bone­ta Bill,” which became law in Vir­ginia on July 1, allows farm­ers to engage in farm­ing activ­i­ties, such as bee­keep­ing, regard­less of easements.

And there is the audit of Boneta’s 2010 and 2011 tax records that some sug­gest may amount to using the IRS against Bone­ta. A for­mer IRS direc­tor sits on PEC’s board.

Tom DeWeese, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy Cen­ter, a non-prof­it, free-enter­prise group based in Vir­ginia, is cir­cu­lat­ing a peti­tion that calls on House Speak­er John Boehn­er and oth­er con­gres­sion­al lead­ers to inves­ti­gate the PEC, its rela­tion­ship with the coun­ty gov­ern­ment and the actions the group has tak­en against Lib­er­ty Farm.

DeWeese said the doc­u­ments reveal Schwartz, the coun­ty super­vi­sor, knew about Boneta’s audit before she received the notice in the mail, and Fitzgib­bons said he learned of the audit dur­ing a meet­ing with Schwartz in the supervisor’s pri­vate home on July 21, 2012—a few days before Bone­ta received her IRS letter.

Martha [Bone­ta] stood up and resist­ed, and so now she is being tar­get­ed,” DeWeese said in an inter­view. “But this is not just Fauquier Coun­ty. We see this hap­pen­ing all over the coun­try. The PEC is one of many qua­si groups oper­at­ing behind the scenes. There are hun­dreds, per­haps thou­sands of green groups just like the PEC pulling the strings of government.”

DeWeese also said he is talk­ing to state law­mak­ers about plac­ing a “five-year opt out” pro­vi­sion on ease­ments that would give prop­er­ty own­ers some flexibility.

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, and it’s a prof­it for them. But the landown­er is stuck for­ev­er with the easement.”

If there is a con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion, DeWeese would like to see the PEC’s non-prof­it 501(c)(3) sta­tus come under scrutiny.

The PEC was giv­en an IRS des­ig­na­tion as a non-prof­it edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion and this comes with restric­tions,” he said. “Giv­en how they have inter­act­ed with the Fauquier Coun­ty gov­ern­ment and how they have treat­ed Martha, I think this calls out for an inves­ti­ga­tion. If you cut off the PEC’s 501(c )(3) sta­tus, you can cut off PEC at the knees.”

The PEC has moved to dis­miss Boneta’s suit in its entire­ty because it “has failed to set forth valid claims,” said Heather Richards, vice-pres­i­dent of con­ser­va­tion and rur­al pro­grams, wrote in an email.

The group also released a detailed post on its web­site that presents its side of the story.

PEC and oth­er land trusts across the coun­try take our respon­si­bil­i­ty to uphold con­ser­va­tion ease­ments in per­pe­tu­ity seri­ous­ly, and work hard to main­tain pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with landown­ers,” the post says. “We are sad­dened by the pub­lic mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions about both the terms of this con­ser­va­tion ease­ment and the facts sur­round­ing the court case and its ensu­ing set­tle­ment, which was agreed to by all parties.”

But ques­tions remain.

Why was Bone­ta sin­gled out for an audit, and how did Schwartz and oth­ers know about it before­hand? What does it say about the rela­tion­ship between the PEC and Fauquier Coun­ty gov­ern­ment that a super­vi­sor can encour­age “aggres­sive enforce­ment?” How much inspec­tion is need­ed to deter­mine whether there are apart­ments in the barn?

Martha Boneta harvestingMartha Bone­ta’s Lib­er­ty Farm in Paris, Va., is sub­ject to rig­or­ous inspec­tions by a green group that enforces the ease­ment on her property.

Martha Boneta’s Lib­er­ty Farm in Paris, Va., is sub­ject to rig­or­ous inspec­tions by a green group that enforces the ease­ment on her property.

Bon­ner Cohen, a senior fel­low at the Nation­al Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Research in Wash­ing­ton, has stud­ied con­ser­va­tion ease­ments for decades. He said what began as a laud­able effort to pro­vide finan­cial­ly stressed landown­er with tax breaks in exchange for set­ting aside land for con­ser­va­tion has been con­vert­ed into a vehi­cle for gov­ern­ment land grabs. The actions tak­en against Lib­er­ty Farm appear to bol­ster these con­cerns, he said.

Mr. Marmet showed an appalling igno­rance of the terms of the con­ser­va­tion ease­ment he, rep­re­sent­ing the PEC, was on Martha Boneta’s prop­er­ty to enforce,” said Cohen, who wit­nessed the inspec­tion in June. “One is left with the impres­sion that the inspec­tion was lit­tle more than a fish­ing expe­di­tion to find out how much he could get away with. That’s not right.”