By Kevin Mooney | From The Daily Signal
Martha Boneta’s years of struggle with a powerful conservation group could come to the beginning of an end this week.
Boneta owns the 64-acre Liberty Farm in the Paris area of Fauquier County, Va. Almost since her family bought the property in 2006, she has been embroiled in a series of disputes with the Piedmont Environmental Council.
At issue: the conservation organization’s enforcement of an agreement that limits development of the land.
But the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s board of trustees will meet Thursday in Richmond to consider a resolution in which it would agree to take over all enforcement of the easement on Liberty Farm from the Piedmont Environmental Council.
The environmental council appears to be “open-minded in terms of being willing to discuss the matter,” the foundation’s executive director, Brett Glymph, told The Daily Signal.
The foundation has no power to constrain the actions of the environmental council or other conservation organizations and no oversight role in state law.
The proposed resolution, Boneta says, merely calls for the organization to declare it is willing to take over all enforcement if she and the environmental council can agree it should.
The Piedmont Environmental Council is a land trust, an organization that works to conserve open space by removing land from development. It offers easements, which are legal agreements in which property owners accept cash payments or tax breaks in exchange for accepting limits on development.
Boneta bought her farm from the Warrenton-based environmental council with the easement attached.
The green group’s aggressive efforts to enforce that easement, however, have resulted in three lawsuits filed by Boneta. One she settled with the green group, a second she withdrew but says she may refile. A third, against Fauquier County over zoning citations, is pending.
Resolution Could End Environmental Council’s Role
Enter the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Created by the Virginia General Assembly in 1966 to oversee easement enforcement and policy matters and help preserve open lands, the foundation already is a co-holder of the easement on Boneta’s Liberty Farm.
The foundation inspects the adjoining Oak Road Forest and the land itself. The Piedmont Environmental Council is responsible for building structures and architecture.
In September, the outdoors foundation met separately with Boneta and her lawyer and with the environmental council and its legal counsel.
The meetings led to the resolution, proposed by Boneta’s attorney, William Hurd, a former solicitor general for the state of Virginia, which the board could vote on as early as Thursday’s meeting.
“After so many years of inappropriate inspections by the PEC, isn’t it time for the PEC to step aside and turn its share of the enforcement role over to [the Virginia Outdoors Foundation]?” Hurd asks in a letter.
It is easy to see why Boneta would agree to a takeover by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
Glymph said Boneta “has caused no trouble” for the organization. The foundation, in fact, turned down the environmental council’s suggestion that surveillance cameras be installed to monitor Boneta’s compliance with the easement covering her property.
Boneta’s relationship with the Piedmont Environmental Council, conversely, has been nothing but rocky.
She has contended in court documents and elsewhere that the green group’s enforcement efforts went far beyond what was required to ensure compliance with the easement. She cites snooping through personal possessions, overzealous zoning enforcement and using high-level connections at the Internal Revenue Service to trigger an audit of her finances.
Way Out of Bad Publicity?
The Piedmont Environmental Council may be equally eager to move on. The group has endured bad publicity from property rights activists, multiple articles in The Daily Signal and other media, and Boneta’s appearances on TV news programs.
The environmental council’s enforcement actions led to state legislation, known as the Boneta Bill, that took aim at easement enforcement and clarified farmers’ rights on their land.
The environmental council has issued at least three documents defending itself from Boneta’s charges and assertions.
In one, the group says it holds or co-holds 51 easements that involve nearly 7,600 acres of land, mostly in Virginia’s Hunt Country. But the Boneta case is the only time in the environmental council’s 41-year history that it has gone to court with a property owner.
“The PEC is squandering an incredible amount of money on staff time and attorneys’ fees in its relentless harassment of Martha Boneta,” said Bonner Cohen, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market organization that focuses on property rights.
And all it has to show for it is a raft of richly deserved bad publicity that has exposed the PEC as an elitist bully willing to do whatever it takes to crush a small farmer.
‘Receptive to the Idea’
The environmental council’s representatives did not respond to The Daily Signal’s phone calls or emails requesting comment.
Glymph, the outdoors foundation’s executive director, said the environmental council “did not shut the door on the proposal” to move toward handing off enforcement of the Liberty Farm easement to the foundation. She said:
They made no promises, but it appeared to me they were open-minded in terms of being willing to discuss the matter further. They seemed receptive to the idea.
Boneta and representatives of the Piedmont Environmental Council each will get 20 minutes to address the board of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation at Thursday’s meeting.
The board has moved the meeting to the Virginia State Capitol building to accommodate what is expected to be a much larger crowd than its gatherings usually draw.
‘Not a Fair Fight’
If the foundation’s board adopts the resolution, it would be up to Boneta and the environmental council to come to an agreement under which the foundation would assume enforcement responsibilities.
John Taylor, president of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, a free-market policy group, credits Boneta for “shining a light and exposing the actions” of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
But Taylor also expressed concern that average citizens who differ on public policy with well-funded groups such as the environmental council will continue to be at a disadvantage. He said:
We’re seeing a disparate influence of money, and it’s not a fair fight. Here in Virginia, the environmental groups are trying to put all of the rural lands into conservation easements, and they have abandoned any consideration of economic growth and job opportunities.
This makes it difficult for future generations to own property and earn money. I don’t support permanent easements that forever lock away land. I’m glad Martha [Boneta] is doing what’s she’s doing. The exposure is good for all of us.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for The Daily Signal. @KevinMooneyDC
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