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Martha Wins! HB 1488 Racks up Landslide Victories!

By Bryant Osborn, Corvallis Farms
Culpeper, VA
Originally posted in the Fauquier Free Citizen on February 19

Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), which is a private 503(c) non-profit land trust, attracted a whole lot of unwanted attention by the General Assembly this year, and they just got their clocks cleaned in Richmond.

Martha Boneta, property rights activist behind HB 1488 (Osborn Photo)

Martha Boneta and Delegate Brenda Pogge (R, VA-96)introduced a private land trust oversight bill, HB 1488, in January. At its introduction, Dr. Bonner Cohen of the property rights group National Center for Policy Research said:

We are calling on the legislature to protect property owners from a program that has no transparency, no standards and no protection for land owners.

The bill racked up landslide victories:  20-2 in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, 87-9 in the full House, and 12-2 with one abstention in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. On Monday, without a reading or any debate, the full Senate passed the bill 32-6, and sent it on to Governor McAuliffe’s desk for his signature.

Martha now is responsible for two Virginia laws that provide major property rights protections: last year’s HB 1430, which was appropriately nicknamed the ‘Boneta Bill,’ and this year’s HB 1488, which just as appropriately should be nicknamed the ‘PEC Bill.’ That is quite some record.

I started writing about Martha Boneta’s right-to-farm battles back in August, 2012 when the Pitchfork Protest first began, and I began writing about PEC’s harassment of her two years ago. After all this time, the Pitchfork Protest is still alive and well.

By now you probably have heard the story of Martha Boneta. She grows organic produce on her Liberty Farm in northern Fauquier County. Fauquier Zoning Administrator Kimberley Johnson tried to put Ms. Boneta and her farm out of business by threatening her with $15,000 per-day fines for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year old girls without a permit, and advertising pumpkin carvings.

Martha’s farm had conservation easements in place when she bought it. A conservation easement is an agreement where a landowner receives tax breaks in exchange for legally restricting future development of their property. None of the tax breaks went to Martha, but to the people who sold the farm to PEC.

The conservation easements on Martha’s farm are administered by both PEC, which is a private land trust, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation 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 PEC board member Margaret “Peggy” Richardson. Ms. Richardson served as the IRS chief under President Clinton.

The extent of PEC’s outrageous behavior became clear when investigative reporter Kevin Mooney acquired a copy of a “Joint Representation and Confidentiality Agreement” that PEC entered into with Philip Thomas and his wife in early 2010. Philip Thomas is the owner of Middleburg-based Thomas and Talbot Real Estate, and he is the prior owner of Martha’s farm. Mooney noted that the firm’s website identifies at least four other Thomas and Talbot realtors who are members of the PEC. The joint agreement says there is a “mutuality of interest in a common representation” where the legal disputes concerning the Boneta farm are concerned.

Mr. Mooney went on to point out that electronic messages and other written communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show county supervisor Peter Schwartz and Philip Thomas discussed the possibility of calling in Martha’s loan, and that Peter Schwartz and PEC arranged meetings specifically to discuss the zoning citations directed against Martha. Mr. Schwartz is a former board member of the PEC.

Martha argues that the Thomases, PEC, and Peter Schwartz pressured the Fauquier zoning administrator to cite her with the zoning violations.

Martha Boneta on her farm (Osborn Photo)

Last year’s ‘Boneta Law’ protects customary activities at agricultural operations from local bans in the absence of substantial impacts on the public welfare. The law also requires a basis in health, safety, or public welfare for a local ordinance that restricts a list of activities, including the conduct of agri-tourism activities, the sale of agricultural or silvicultural products or related items, the preparation or sale of foods that otherwise comply with state law, and other customary activities. Localities are prohibited from subjecting those listed activities to a special-use permit requirement.

Last October, Kevin Mooney, writing for The DailySignal.com website, broke the story that VOF was so concerned about PEC actions that they were scheduling a hearing on PEC’s behavior on November 6. As Mr. Mooney pointed out, “[T]he fact that an agency with a stake in the easement at issue . . . is holding a hearing to examine the actions of the other co-holder suggests a tipping point” in this battle. VOF apparently decided it was time to distance itself from PEC.

Joel Salatin in his book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal asks:

What good is saving farmland if there are no farmers to farm it? Do we really want more wasteland?

Bonner Cohen hammered this point in his testimony at the VOF hearing. Dr. Cohen stated:

I think it is fair to say that no organization in the United States has done more harm to the idea and the thoughts behind a conservation easement than the Piedmont Environmental Council. Through its abuse of Martha Boneta, it has provided an example—and a very bad example. … And as [former Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Director David Johnson] correctly pointed out, this is going to make people think, ‘Do we really want a conservation easement on our land if we are going to be subjected to this level of harassment and humiliation?’ I think a lot of people are going to answer that question, ‘no.’

Government agencies, such as VOF, are bound by state regulations on transparency, accountability, and oversight, but private land trusts are not bound by those rules. At that hearing Delegate Pogge predicted,

[the General Assembly is] going to have to put some restrictions—[private land trusts] put restrictions on the property owner—we are going to have to put some restrictions on them.

Following the hearing, the VOF Board of Directors voted 6 to 0 in favor of a resolution offering to take over the management of PEC’s part of Liberty Farm’s conservation easement.

But the VOF resolution went nowhere. Michael Thompson, writing for the VaRight.com website, reported on why. VOF attorney Kerry Hutcherson in a December email wrote:

Our staff has spent a great deal of time researching the history of the project, compiling all documentation, and examining both the existing deed of easement, as well as the Baseline Documentation Report (BDR) … we found a number of serious flaws in both the easement and the BDR.

The list of “serious flaws” in PEC’s easement documents included two conflicting versions of the BDR. Someone altered Martha’s BDR after she bought her property. At this point, VOF realized what was really going on, and they quickly dropped their offer to take over the management of PEC’s easement. Mr. Hutcherson made it perfectly clear that, “It would be imprudent [for VOF] to take on what we think may by an indefensible liability for the Commonwealth,” and he further noted that the Attorney General’s office “also has serious concerns about the current deed and BDR.”

(Osborn Image)

But that is not all. PEC 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. Martha lost the use of all that acreage, and left uncared for, the Oak Grove became overgrown.

Michael Thompson also reported that PEC apparently made the whole story up, and that there is no actual evidence that General Jackson was ever on Martha’s farm.

Delegate Brenda Pogge (R-Williamsburg) issued a warning that PEC’s bad behavior had, “attracted the attention of the General Assembly,” but that statement does not begin to describe the outrage in Richmond that followed this revelation. There are a lot of people who consider Civil War history to be hallowed ground, and those people were livid that PEC would pull something like that.

In an interview after November’s VOF hearing, Del. Pogge marveled:

What I’m wondering, really, is why we are meeting at [Department of Conservation and Recreation] and why are we not in criminal court, or civil court, because the things that have been perpetrated on Martha Boneta really rise to a criminal level, and certainly her civil rights have been violated.

Land preservation tax credits cost Virginia about $100 million a year in income tax revenue. Suddenly this year, there were legislators in the House of Delegates talking about cutting the budget for land preservation tax credits.

HB 1488, titled Conservation easements; tax benefits; disputes over terms, was introduced by Delegate Brenda Pogge (R-Williamsburg) in January. The bill went through several modifications, but according to Martha:

It still has incredible protections. This is unprecedented. This is the first time in the history of the [Virginia] conservation program that there has ever been protection put in to protect the land owners—ever! This is a huge, huge step.

As I reported in my February 6 column in the Culpeper Star-Exponent, as more and more reports of PEC’s bad behavior became known, the opposition to HB 1488 from the coalition of private land trusts – known as the Virginia Unified Land Trusts (VaULT)—began to crumble. The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and others, broke ranks and dropped their opposition to the bill. In the end, PEC’s bad behavior proved that private land trust oversight was needed, and HB 1488 began sailing to its bipartisan landslide victories.

Martha Boneta and Delegate Brenda Pogge deserve big thanks for bringing desperately needed transparency and accountability to private land trusts.

PEC has not only suffered a humiliating loss in the General Assembly, they are in some deep trouble.

To quote Joel Salatin:

What good is protecting farmland if we don’t protect the farmers and their economic viability on the land?

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.

2 Responses to “Martha Wins! HB 1488 Racks up Landslide Victories!”

  1. Ron Hedlund
    Twitter:
    says:

    PEC only cares about farmLAND. They have no regard for farmERS. Progressives are the bane of true land stewardship.

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