Shakeup at Virginia Land Trust Makes Waves

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CFACTNow the fox is in charge of the hen­house!

BC1The abrupt depar­ture of a high-rank­ing offi­cial from the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil (PEC) is fuel­ing spec­u­la­tion that the con­tro­ver­sial land trust is feel­ing the heat from rev­e­la­tions of its trans­gres­sions against a Vir­ginia farmer.

Heather Richards

Heather Richards

Heather Richards joined the PEC in Sep­tem­ber 2006, ini­tial­ly serv­ing as direc­tor of land con­ser­va­tion and, from Sep­tem­ber 2011 to April 2015, as vice pres­i­dent for con­ser­va­tion and rur­al pro­grams.  Richards achieved nation­al noto­ri­ety when a video was post­ed on the Inter­net show­ing her in an angry con­fronta­tion with farmer Martha Bone­ta.  The PEC offi­cial was on Boneta’s farm to car­ry out an inspec­tion in con­nec­tion with a con­ser­va­tion ease­ment the land trust co-holds on the prop­er­ty.   In the video, Richards demands to see the con­tents of a clos­et in the farm’s barn.  Bone­ta, stand­ing her ground, refus­es the demand, point­ing out that the clos­et and its con­tents have noth­ing to do with the con­ser­va­tion ease­ment.

Bait and Switch Conservation Easement

The video has since come to sym­bol­ize the intru­sive, police-state tac­tics the PEC used in mon­i­tor­ing Boneta’s com­pli­ance with the terms of the

Martha Boneta

Martha Bone­ta

con­ser­va­tion ease­ment.  It has since been learned that the con­ser­va­tion ease­ment that Bone­ta joint­ly signed with the PEC on pur­chas­ing the farm in 2006 is not the ease­ment the PEC filed with Fauquier Coun­ty.  As a result of this bait and switch, Richards was on Boneta’s land enforc­ing a con­ser­va­tion ease­ment that the farmer had nei­ther seen nor signed.

Fur­ther under­min­ing the posi­tion of the PEC were dis­clo­sures that the land trust attempt­ed to have sur­veil­lance cam­eras installed on Boneta’s prop­er­ty and that the War­ren­ton, Vir­ginia, based orga­ni­za­tion had false­ly claimed that Con­fed­er­ate Gen­er­al Stonewall Jack­son had encamped on what is now her prop­er­ty on his way to the first Bat­tle of Bull Run in June 1861.

With its rep­u­ta­tion in tat­ters, the PEC has now shed the pub­lic face of the land trust’s abuse of Bone­ta.   At the begin­ning of April, Richards’ name and pho­to were qui­et­ly removed from the PEC’s web­site.  Her depar­ture is a tac­it acknowl­edge­ment by the PEC that pub­lic expo­sure of its treat­ment of Bone­ta had so severe­ly dam­aged the orga­ni­za­tion that a head need­ed to roll.

Chair of the Land Trust Accreditation Commission

Heather Richards’ 8–1/2-year stay at the PEC may have end­ed unhap­pi­ly, but she still is a force to be reck­oned with in the land-trust uni­verse.  Since the begin­ning of the year, Richards has been serv­ing as chair of the Land Trust Accred­i­ta­tion Com­mis­sion, a project of the Land Trust Alliance. As of Feb­ru­ary 25, 2015, the Com­mis­sion had accred­it­ed 301 land trusts in 45 states and ter­ri­to­ries.  Richards’ for­mer affil­i­a­tion, the PEC, is one of those accred­it­ed land trusts.  Asked in an inter­view post­ed on the www.landtrustaccreditation.org web­site if she could tell a land trust only one thing about the com­mis­sion, Richards respond­ed as fol­lows:

We’re just like you, and we have to live by these rules, too.  Because we are pro­fes­sion­als who have to work in this field for accred­it­ed land trusts, we under­stand what an accred­i­ta­tion process means to a land trust.  Because we are you.

pecs-300x201In say­ing “we’re just like you,” Richards may have revealed more than she real­ized.  Just how sim­i­lar to the PEC, Richards’ for­mer employ­er, are the oth­er land trusts the com­mis­sion has accred­it­ed?   Are we to believe that the PEC is the only land trust to have abused its pow­er?  As they grow in num­ber and pow­er, and increase the amount of pri­vate land they con­trol, land trusts should be sub­ject­ed to the same lev­el of scruti­ny that uncov­ered the mis­deeds of the PEC.

In a bizarre twist to the tale, Richards says in anoth­er inter­view on landtrustaccreditation.org that she was “[b]orn and raised in Toron­to, Cana­da.”  But in response to the next ques­tion, she says “I was born and raised in north­west­ern New Jer­sey, 45 miles out­side of New York City.”  While her place of birth may remain a mys­tery, her place in the recent his­to­ry of the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil is no secret.

Fox in the Hen House”

Hav­ing Heather Richards chair the Land Trust Accred­i­ta­tion Com­mis­sion is putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” says Martha Bone­ta.