Conservation Easements – Part 2

[ 0 ] January 15, 2015 |

farmTom Deweese is the founder and president of the American Policy Centre and is one of America’s leading advocates of private property. The OLA was fortunate to have Mr. Deweese as one of our guest speakers at our conference in October 2014. The following article is printed with kind permission of Mr. Deweese and the American Policy Centre. The article discusses conservation easements, the American version of our Ontario Farmland Trusts. See http://www.ontariolandowners.ca/news/beware-of-organizations-bearing-gifts/ for a discussion on Ontario Farmland Trusts.

(continuation from part 1)

Some are more equal than others

All of the combined dangers from conservation easements, and all of the combined powerful forces of land trusts and governments seemed to land on the head of one innocent, lovely lady named Martha Boneta. Her story made national headlines last year and led to a colossal battle in the Virginia state legislature – a battle that continues to rage today without resolution.

In Fauquier County, Virginia, where Martha (and I) reside, the chief “conservation” group is a behemoth called the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC). They have managed to work their way into every nook and cranny of the county, specifically in the county government. PEC people have bored deeply into the county development office and other country agencies; they converge on farmers to pressure the establishment of conservation easement, and they make a ton of money from them. It’s good to be king.

In fact, PEC holds sway over nine Virginia counties and they brag that they have succeeded in “helping citizens protect nearly 350,000 acres” of land with “voluntary conservation easements.” PEC calls it one of the most dramatic private land conservation successes in the nation. It is interesting to note that those nine counties, in particular Fauquier County, are the main center of the famous Virginia horse country where, throughout Virginia history, the rich landed gentry have had the pleasure of riding their horses across vast open land in organized fox hunts. These horsy people are rich and powerful with vast estates in the country side. Many have contributed to the PEC land conservation effort as a way to keep open space available for their fox hunting pursuits.

It is also interesting to note the comments and attitudes often expressed by these people concerning new comers to the county. Say the horsy gentry; there must be a way to curtail new people from coming into the county and buying or developing property. That’s because, they charge, these newcomers have no understanding or respect for the age old tradition of riding their horses over the land that now gets fenced in or blocked by these unwanted intruders. How dare they do that to their own land! The answer to their desire to stop it – the PEC.

At a January, 2013 meeting of the Fauquier County planning commission, it was revealed that 96,600 acres of county land is in conservation easements (or 23% of the total land mass of the county). A little research revealed an interesting detail. It seems that, as the conservation easements are sold to the public as a way to save the small family farm, in reality, of the 23% of the land, only 2% of it is actually small family farms. The rest is basically the vast estates of the landed gentry who have found a way to not only keep the land open for their fox hunts – but to also reduce their property taxes.

Last year, when I presented these statistics in a talk in Richmond, Virginia, a member of the Piedmont Environmental Council commented that he “never thought he would hear a Conservative advocate class warfare.” Actually, I was trying to prevent it.

Martha’s plight

Into this atmosphere, enter Martha Boneta. If one were to write down all of the requirements as expressed by the Greens for their idea of the perfect small farmer, Martha Boneta would be their poster child. Martha just wanted to farm. She loves it. And she is very creative about it. It was her dream come-true when she found the small farm in Paris, Virginia. It had been on the market for at least six years. And so she was able to purchase it at a very reduced price from the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Everything was looking great for a lady anxious to get her hands in the dirt. She is into organic farming – just like the PEC advocates in their publications, web site and bumper stickers – “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” Martha made the farm a haven for rescued animals. She restored the heavily deteriorated barn and turned it into a small farm store to sell her products – items produced right there on the farm.

Oh yes, there was just one small detail brought up at the very last minute during the closing meeting for her mortgage loan as she was purchasing the property. The Piedmont Environmental Council slipped in a conservation easement on the property. This specific easement did not pay any cash to Martha nor did it provide any tax credits. All the benefits went to PEC. Martha signed the document because she had been told conservation easements were a way to protect the farm from being developed. She was for that.

But there is one major aspect of Martha’s value system that doesn’t fit the PEC profile for the perfect small farmer. She believes in private property rights. And that’s when the trouble started. Space does not allow a full description of the battles Martha has faced over her attempts to farm her land. Here is the “Cliff notes” version:

Martha does not live on the farm, she owns a home in another location. The conservation easement she signed said she could have a small 1600 square foot residence on the property. She never used the facility as a residence.

The Fauquier County planning board suddenly issued notice that Martha would be fined for selling items that were not produced on her farm, something she never actually did, and that she needed another permit in order to use the facility for events.

She was immediately threatened with fines of $5000 for each violation brought by the County. The evidence used against her by the county was a photo of a children’s birthday party that Martha had posted on her face book page, allegedly proving that she had rented out the barn for a party. In fact, it was a private party for friends. No money exchanged hands for the facility. But the battle was on.

Martha began to learn what powerful weapon conservation easements can be in the hands of those who wanted to control her actions. The easement gave the PEC the right to occasionally inspect the property for “violations’ of the easement. Suddenly Martha was informed that PEC inspectors would visit the farm to investigate the “living quarters.” Rather than a random occasional or annual visit, PEC came back again and again; demanding to look into her private closets; even banning her right to video tape the inspections on her own property.

The PEC found fault with a simple water nozzle Martha had purchased to use in washing her animals. Somehow that was a violation. There is an old cemetery on the property dating back to 1832. In it are buried the families of former residents of the area and black slaves. To keep the farm animals from walking though the cemetery, Martha installed a simple fence. “Violation,” said PEC, “It damages the view shed.” On and on went the harassment over such idiotic claims. Along with it came thousands of dollars of legal expenses as Martha fought to defend herself.

Eventually, as a result of non-stop pressure and the threat of fines from the County, plus the pressure from PEC, Martha was forced to close her farm store, seriously damaging a major part of her ability to earn income from the farm.

What was her real crime? She had challenged county planning restrictions. And in doing so, she had become a threat to their authority and that of the PEC, which is the driving force behind county controls over private property.

Non-Governmental Control = Government Corruption

Every American or Canadian, especially farmers, should learn this lesson from Martha’s story: conservation easements, comprehensive planning, and controls over private property, while always sold as a way to help, are actually a Trojan Horse of corruption.

If there is a poster child in this story it is the government of Fauquier County. Corruption begins with the absolute influence and power unleashed by a non-governmental organization like the Piedmont Environmental Council. It is aided by an elite few who seek to use government power for their own personal gains. And it is enforced by a compliant county Board of Supervisors that will use that power as a weapon to crush anyone who dares stand up against them.

Beware! Unfortunately, Martha’s story is not unique. Every community has its own version of the Piedmont Environmental Council calling the shots behind the scenes. Their very agenda of power, and the corruption it brings, is now showing itself in every local and state government – all under the over-used and unsubstantiated excuses of environmental protection and “local planning.”

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Category: Your Rights