Virginia Enacts Law To Protect Landowners From Predatory Land Trusts

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Martha Boneta

Martha Bone­ta

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.

Virginia-flag-300x168Enact­ment 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 © (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?