Democracy broke out in Richmond, Va. on Thursday November 6, 2014 much to the consternation of a well-funded, well-connected land trust known as the Piedmont Environmental Council. That was the day dozens of property rights activists from across Virginia and other parts of the country showed up in force to express support for an organic farmer who has accused the council of colluding and scheming with realtors and government officials in an effort to force her into selling a highly coveted parcel of land.
Martha Boneta, who owns and operates the Liberty Farm located in the Paris, Va. section of Fauquier County, has produced email records and other written correspondence to substantiate her allegations. These written communications show the PEC maintained a steady and robust chain of communications concerning Liberty Farm with county government officials who had issued citations based on zoning allegations against the property. What has happened in Virginia tells a larger national story about the disproportionate influence the environmental movement exerts over public policy. Green activists are well dialed into government agencies at all levels all across the country. But remarkably, Boneta, and other citizen activists, have found a way to level the playing field in Virginia.
Stonewall Jackson never slept here
Here’s the latest. New revelations that appear to discredit a long-standing historical claim the PEC has made under the guise of a conservation easement concerning Civil War General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson could break the whole case open. The 64-acre property that includes Liberty Farm also “contains an Oak Grove that is recognized as the heart of the bivouac [encampment] of General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s men on the evening of July 18, 1861 after strenuous march from Winchester, Virginia. After a night’s rest, the march resumed to then Piedmont Station (now Delaplane) to board the train by which troops traveled to the 1st Battle of Manassas during which General Jackson earned his nickname.”
That’s what the easement documents say and that’s what John L. Walker III, an attorney for the PEC with the firm of Williams Mullens, claimed as recently as October 22, 2014 in a letter he wrote to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
But state government officials and civil war historians who have recently probed into the whereabouts of the Stonewall Jackson encampment on the evening of July 18, 1861 are inclined to place the camp at another location in or near the village of Paris, Va. While the area is rich in civil war history, there is no hard evidence that the famous general ever slept or camped on what is now the Boneta property, according to historical records.
So what do these new revelations say about the validity of the easement that remains in effect on Liberty Farm? The unsubstantiated claim about Stonewall Jackson and Boneta’s farm raises the specter of a fabricated historical designation, one which the PEC inserted into the conservation easement on her land.
Shannon L. Gossling, executive director and chief legal counsel with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a national constitutional public interest law firm, offered the following assessment in an email message to the Daily Caller
“From the public information available on the history of Martha Boneta’s ownership of the property in question, if the facts play out as alleged by her, there may be a number of potential constitutional and administrative issues raised by alleged tactics and actions that should raise concerns of property rights advocates nationwide.”
Citizen activists challenge environmentalists
The PEC points out in a detailed online post that it is permitted to conduct periodic inspections of under the terms of a settlement agreement reached in October 2011. But Boneta insists that group has overstepped its authority to the point where it is trespassing across her property.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the agency chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in 1966 to monitor easements and promote land conservation, agreed to hear from both sides during its November 6 board meeting. More than 100 people from across Virginia and other parts of the country attended the meeting, which was held inside the General Assembly building. Prior to the meeting, about 40 property rights activists held a demonstration against the PEC at the Bell Tower located in Capitol Square. About 40 citizen activists chanted “hey hey, ho ho, the PEC has got to go.” Footage of the demonstration is available on YouTube.
The fact that citizen activists found expression in the state capital where green activists are accustomed to calling the shots at the expense of sound public policy did not sit well with Mr. Walker, the attorney representing the PEC. That’s what he told the the VOF, in letter dated November 5, 2014. This was part of a chain of letters both Walker and the legal counsel for the farmer submitted to the VOF prior to the board meeting.
“Since the submission of the PEC’s letter of October 22, 2014 to VOF, it has come to the PEC’s attention that outside organizations not parties to the easement have used social media and certain on-line publications and blogs to invite large groups of people to attend the VOF meeting on November 6 with the goal of attacking the PEC and its employees. From the PEC’s perspective, what began as an opportunity to have a civil discourse about the Easement at a board meeting has been transformed into a pretext for a political rally.”
This uppity group of property rights activists, who don’t have the financial resources of the PEC, achieved real and lasting results. The VOF passed a resolution during its board meeting that said it would be willing to assume full control of the easement. Then, after carefully examining the details of the easement, and documents related to the easement, the VOF found it could not assume full oversight authority over the easement without a “corrective amendment” that would address “a number of serious flaws” it uncovered. Apparently, the historically inaccurate reference to Stonewall Jackson is just one of many problems. None of this may have come to light in the absence of the citizen activism that the PEC finds so unsettling.
“My family relied on the major historical significance of the heart of Stonewall Jackson’s bivouac on our farm,” Boneta said. “We are still very much in shock and heartbroken.”
All eyes are now on HB 1488, which would reform the conservation program to allow for greater oversight of land trust activities and provide property owners with the option to seek third party mediators in the event of a dispute. It was just last year that the Boneta Bill, which protects against abusive zoning practices, became law. So there’s progress here.
But average citizens who have scored an important for property rights in Virginia need to know that they remain at a disadvantage against the PEC given the group’s financial resources.
Ron Arnold, executive vice-president of the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, and a columnist for the Daily Signal, has taken a careful look at the PEC’s finances. The non-profit land trust is not in the poor house.
“Ferreting out the money in and behind the Piedmont Environmental Council requires more-than-average scrutiny,” Arnold explained in an email message. “Their IRS Form 990 annual reports barely give a peek into how flush they are. Non-profits do not have to reveal who’s giving them money, and PEC doesn’t tell. But sophisticated databases do tell. PEC gets millions from more than 25 private foundations – a notable $375,000 gift came from the Aqua Fund, in Washington. DC. Who’s that? It takes research to find out, but it’s entirely funded by Catherine M. Conover – these days she hides her maiden name, Mellon. She’s the silver spoon daughter of Paul Mellon of the vast Mellon Bank fortune, which Fortune’s 1957 list of the ten richest Americans estimated as worth $5.9 billion in current dollars. That’s the kind of money behind PEC, people of means and mean people. They destroy the lives and property of the lower classes for the sake of their misguided nature ideology.”