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Fresh & Local: Virginia Outdoors Foundation – Another Land Trust’s Dishonest Dealing

VOF-LogoPiedmont Environmental Council (PEC), which is a private, non-profit land trust, has attracted a whole lot of unwanted attention to Virginia’s land trusts.

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.

All this attention was attracted by northern Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta. Martha’s farm had conservation easements in place when she bought it.

The conservation easements on Martha’s farm are administered by both PEC and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) which is a state governmental agency. Martha has charged that PEC has 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.

PEC also claimed that General “Stonewall” Jackson and his men bivouacked on a part of Martha’s farm known as the Oak Grove on the evening of July 18, 1861 on a march from Winchester to the 1st Battle of Manassas. PEC forced Martha to fence-off the nearly twenty acre Oak Grove – at her expense – and they insisted that she not ever use it, claiming that it is hallowed ground. Back in January, the story broke that PEC apparently made that whole story up, and that there is no actual evidence that Gen. Jackson was ever on Martha’s farm.

More recently, PEC appears to have committed fraud when Martha bought her farm. Instead of filing the same version of the conservation easement that was signed by PEC President Chris Miller and Martha, PEC pulled a bait and switch and filed a conservation easement that was dramatically different than the one Martha signed.

PEC’s behavior has now drawn attention to another case of questionable business behavior by a land trust, this time by VOF. VOF has recently 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.

Before considering the VOF case, it is important to consider some questions. First, should a marsh be eligible for conservation easement tax breaks? Conservation easements are constantly touted for saving farms and farmland, but a marsh has no agricultural use, and wetlands cannot be developed for residential or traditional commercial use anyway, so what agricultural benefit would be accomplished by a conservation easement on a marsh?

Second, if hypothetically there was a conservation easement on a farm, and oil and gas was later discovered on it, should the owner be allowed to change the conservation easement to allow fracking and operating oil and gas wells? If the owner gave up development rights and collected tax breaks, how can they change their mind and now allow oil and gas development? When is development not development?

Third, can a conservation easement on one property be enforced against a neighbor’s property that is not encumbered by an easement?Rappahannock Cliffs

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.

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 decided to attack 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 suggested 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.

Even more troubling is Mr. Seilheimer’s argument. Hill Wellford’s property includes a 837 acre marsh with a conservation easement restricting its development. Mr. Seilheimer in his letter argued that, “The proposed community pier would diminish . . . the work we have achieved in our easement program.” In other words, Mr. Wellford’s easement should be applied to his neighbor’s property across the river to prevent the easement from being “diminished.” Set aside both the dubious value of a conservation easement on marshland in the first place, and that the easement being “diminished” specifically permits oil and gas fracking.

The argument that one property owner’s conservation easement should be enforced against another property owner is appalling. In an October, 2013, explanation to VMRC, VOF’s Executive Director Brett Glymph wrote, “The Virginia Outdoors Foundation has not and does not take any position on the [Rappahannock Cliffs community pier] application. Any letter of communication stating otherwise does not reflect the position of the VOF Board of Trustees and was sent without Board action.”

Fortunately, Mr. Seilheimer’s argument does not appear to have any official support from inside VOF, even though VOF staff members worked on Mr. Seilheimer’s letter and recruited other organizations and state agencies to join the opposition.

Now a game-changer: oil and gas have been discovered in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula and in the race to cash in on oil and gas leases, Hill Wellford’s and Peter Bance’s environmental concerns suddenly become highly selective, and hypocrisy abounds. That story next week.

Terrell Bowers’ summary is, “This is a case of an abuse of power. It’s is a bad story.”

 

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.

One Response to “Fresh & Local: Virginia Outdoors Foundation – Another Land Trust’s Dishonest Dealing”

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    1. […] I wrote in last week’s column, PEC’s behavior has now drawn attention to another case of questionable business behavior by a […]


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    Tom White Says:

    Nothing is more conservative than a republican wanting to get their majority back. And nothing is more liberal than a republican WITH a majority.

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