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Fresh & Local: Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s Dishonest Dealing – Fracking is conserving

Northern Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta’s battles with Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) have focused a whole lot of attention on Virginia’s land trusts.

PEC is a private, non-profit land trust. Land trusts are supposed to work to conserve land from development by administering conservation easements. A conservation easement is an agreement where a property owner gives up the rights to future development of their land in exchange for tax breaks. Virginia annually gives away $100 million dollars in tax breaks for conservation easements, so despite their relative obscurity, land trusts are a very, very big business.

Martha Boneta’s farm had conservation easements in place when she bought it. Her conservation easements are administered by both PEC and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), which is aVOF-Logo state governmental agency. Martha has charged that PEC trespassed repeatedly on her farm and has attempted to drive her off the farm through unwarranted and overly invasive conservation easement inspections, and an IRS audit she says was instigated by a PEC board member.

More recently, PEC appears to have committed fraud when Martha bought her farm, by filing a conservation easement that was dramatically different than the one Martha signed.

As I wrote in last week’s column, PEC’s behavior has now drawn attention to another case of questionable business behavior by a land trust, this time by VOF. VOF has played the role of a white knight trying to help resolve Martha Boneta’s conflict with PEC. But these actions suggest that VOF has its own problems.

This new case involves Terrell Bowers who in 2002 and 2003 bought a 250 acre property in the Northern Neck’s Richmond County along the north east shore of the Rappahannock River. Mr. Bowers originally bought the property for family getaways, but three years ago, he got county approval to develop and subdivide his property.

Mr. Bowers hired one of the best conservation subdivision land planners in the country, Randall Arendt, whose plan dedicated 75% of the land to open space. That open space was conserved without costing the Commonwealth a single penny.

Richmond County did not want each of the 22 water-front lots to have its own pier, so they required Mr. Bowers to plan one community pier for the entire development. Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) encourages the use of community piers as an alternative to multiple private piers, and concurred with the requirement for a community pier.

The property directly across the river from Mr. Bowers is owned by wealthy Richmond attorney Hill Wellford. In an effort to stop Mr. Bowers’ Rappahannock Cliffs development plans, Mr. Wellford helped organized attacks on the community pier.

Hill Wellford’s friend and neighbor, Peter Bance, is on the VOF Board of Trustees. Together, they convinced the VOF Chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time, Charles Seilheimer, to write a letter on official VOF stationary to VMRC opposing the Rappahannock Cliffs community pier.

Mr. Seilheimer’s June, 2013 letter stated that opposition to the community pier was the official position of VOF, but in fact, he never got approval, or even discussed this matter with the other Board members before he sent the letter. Seilheimer simply sent it on his own.

As I also wrote last week, Mr. Seilheimer’s argument in his letter to VMRC was even more troubling than his unilateral action in sending the letter. Hill Wellford’s property includes an 837 acre marsh, named Beverly Marsh, which has a conservation easement restricting its development. Mr. Seilheimer argued that VOF has the right to enforce the terms of Hill Wellford’s easement on Terrell Bowers’ property across the river to prevent Hill Wellford’s easement from being “diminished.” The argument that one property owner’s conservation easement can encumber another property owner is an appalling overreach, and the combination of over-zealous environmental activism and abusive government should terrify all property owners.

But this gets worse. Far worse.

Oil wells (Saudi government)Oil and gas have been discovered in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula in a shale formation called the Taylorsville Basin, and a Texas-based company, Shore Exploration and Production, has already obtained leases on 84,000 acres in the Taylorsville Basin south east of Fredericksburg. There is currently a race going on among property owners to cash in on the oil and gas leases, and hypocrisy abounds.

The basis of most magic tricks is something call “misdirection,” which is getting an audience to focus on what one hand is doing so that no one notices what the other hand is doing. There is plenty of misdirection going on here.

If a farm is covered by a conservation easement that restricts future development, and oil and gas are later discovered on it, should the owner be allowed to change the conservation easement to allow fracking and operating oil and gas wells? You would think, “Of course not. That would defeat the whole purpose of conservation easements. If the owner gave up development rights and collected the tax breaks, they should not be allowed to change their mind because oil and gas are discovered. Forgoing future development in perpetuity means forgoing future development in perpetuity.”

And you would be wrong.

In 2010, about the time Shore Exploration began leasing oil and gas rights for fracking in the Taylorsville Basin, Hill Wellford and his brother Harrison amended the 1977 conservation easement negotiated by their parents on their Kendale Farm (which made no reference to oil or gas) to specifically allow oil and gas exploration and extraction. And unbelievably, VOF accepted the amendments. What?

Just as unbelievably, it turns out that the conservation easement on the Wellford’s Beverly Marsh was written to specifically allow oil and gas exploration and extraction by fracking. This might oil well (wikipedia)very well be the only conservation easement in the United States to permit fracking in a tidal marsh. What kind of land trust writes conservation easements with exemptions for industrial development – especially industrial development in a tidal marsh? Big money and crony capitalism have corrupted the whole concept of conservation easements and what they were supposed to accomplish.

(Bowing to immense public pressure, VOF voted in April, 2014 to no longer accept easements that allow oil and gas drilling, but they let stand any previous easements that allow it.)

So you have this insane situation where Hill Wellford went to extraordinary efforts to get the blessing of the state’s conservation agency to open up his conservation-easement-protected Kendale Farm and Beverly Marsh to oil and gas wells, while at the same time throwing a petulant temper-tantrum about the environmental impact of Terrell Bowers’ boat pier. Misdirection at its finest.

And Hill Wellford is not the only one. Next week we will consider the details of Jimmy Wheat and his Blandfield Plantation easement, which specifically allows 88 oil wells and 24 gas wells, as well as the role of VOF Board of Trustees members Peter Bance’s and Charles Seilheimer’s role in organizing opposition to Terrell Bowers’ boat pier.

Oh, and Hill Wellford’s law partner, Thomas G. Slater, was appointed to the VOF Board of Trustees last June, and Charles Seilheimer’s daughter-in-law Nora Seilheimer is on the PEC Board of Directors.

As Terrell Bowers put it, “Conservation easements may have started out as a good idea, but the spirit behind them seems to have shifted to something else altogether, and easements may not be such a great thing after all.”

Indeed.

Bryant Osborn - Fresh and Local

Bryant Osborn – Fresh and Local

 

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. Bryant’s Fresh & Local columns on local-market agriculture now appear regularly here at Virginia Right! He can be reached at bryant@corvallisfarms.com

About Tom White

Tom is a US Navy Veteran, owns an Insurance Agency and is currently an IT Manager for a Virginia Distributor. He has been published in American Thinker, currently writes for the Richmond Examiner as well as Virginia Right! Blog.Tom lives in Hanover County, Va and is involved in politics at every level and is a Recovering Republican who has finally had enough of the War on Conservatives in progress with the Leadership of the GOP on a National Level.

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