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PEC holds strong sway in Fauquier County, or not

By Kevin Mooney |Watchdog.org

How much influence does the Piedmont Environmental Council have in Fauquier County, Va.?

Talk to Martha Boneta, a farmer turned property-rights activist, and she will tell you the PEC holds considerable sway over public-policy decisions made at the county level.

But talk to Heather Richards, vice-president of conservation and rural programs for PEC, and the sitting members of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, and they will tell you that the reports of “collusion” between the PEC and the county are greatly overstated.

Boneta owns a 70-acre farm in Paris, Va., a small village in Fauquier County, that has been the focal point of a highly publicized legal battle between her and county officials over alleged zoning violations.

It was during an interview with Watchdog.org on her farm that Boneta revealed for the first time that she is the target of an IRS audit. Boneta, and others, suspect the audit may be part of a coordinated effort. That’s understandable since MargaretPeggyRichardson, a former IRS commissioner under President Bill Clinton, sits on PEC’s board. For the record, Richardson denies having anything to do with the audit. (See related story.)

While recent media coverage of the Boneta case is largely concentrated on the questionable legality of the modifications county officials made to the local zoning laws in July 2011, Boneta’s supporters are convinced the lawsuit filed by the PEC in 2009 over the terms of the conservation easement is what ultimately precipitated the battle over property rights in Virginia, the subsequent action by county officials and possibly the IRS audit.

The PEC suit was settled in September 2011. But by that time, the county had implemented controversial changes to local zoning ordinances. The Boneta Bill (House Bill 1430) includes language that would reverse these changes and clarify key provisions of the state’s Right to Farm Act.

Donna Holt, president of the Campaign for Liberty, and author of “Beware Richmonds Bearing Conservation Easements for Farmers,”  told Watchdog.org that the PEC lawsuit “demonstrates how conservation easements can be used to advance government land grabs.” The timing of the suits, the settlement, and subsequent action by the county, “call out for great attention and scrutiny,” Holt said.

As initially conceived, conservation easements had significant benefits for financially stressed property owners. In exchange for receiving certain tax breaks, property owners agreed to give up some development rights while maintaining control of their property.

The organizations that managed the easements, known as land trusts, tended “to be small, nonpolitical, and independent of government involvement,” at least in the beginning, Dana Gattuso, a former analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research, explains in a research paper. But over time, the land trusts morphed into larger entities that received substantial government funding. The dominate player at the federal level is The Nature Conservancy, which now controls more than 3 million acres in easements.

“Here in Virginia, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) is doing what the Nature Conservancy is doing at the federal level,” Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the NCPPR, says. “The Fauquier County government and the PEC are de facto allies, for all practical purposes, they are one in the same. Everywhere Martha looks the county government is working hand in glove with Piedmont to force her off her land.”

Top officials with PEC disagree.

“Contrary to what people think, we do not own the county,” Richards, the PEC official overseeing easements, said in an interview. “Our issues pertain to the enforcement of easements.”

PEC’s full response to the Boneta case is available here.

In an email message, Holder Trumbo, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, wrote:

“There is no relationship between zoning and easements as easements may be privately negotiated and public policy cannot rely on private agreements.”

Trumbo also is critical of the Boneta Bill, which will be reintroduced next year.

“In my view the Boneta Bill is a well-intended but misguided effort that threatens the integrity of agriculture by broadening its definition so broadly as to render it meaningless and thereby open the protections agriculture has traditionally enjoyed to unwanted and unanticipated scrutiny.”

The bill passed the House of Delegates in a 77-22 vote in February. The legislation was later blocked in the Senate Agriculture Committee in an 11-4 vote, but Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, has vowed to reintroduce the bill next year.

Mark Fitzgibbons, a Northern Virginia lawyer who specializes in constitutional law, said he views the Boneta Bill as corrective measure to changes the county made to zoning laws in 2011 that he says violate the state’s Right to Farm Act.

“We need the Boneta Bill because we can’t have local officials selectively preventing some small farmers from being business people or otherwise violating farmers’ rights. The Boneta Bill would clarify the right to commerce in the Right to Farm Act, protect constitutional rights and it would allow farmers to be compensated for legal fees,” he said.

Kevin Mooney can be reached at Kmooney@watchdog.org and followed on Twitter @KevinMooneyDC

http://watchdog.org/95304/conservation-easements-government-land-grabs-and-irs-audits/

 

 

Comments

comments

6 Responses to PEC holds strong sway in Fauquier County, or not

  1. Sherlin Reply

    March 1, 2015 at 12:12 am

    Perhaps you three should do more research into the history of the conservation movement in northern virginia and how it has been all but abolished in loudoun county, currently the second fastest growing city in the US. No need for conservation, eh? Guess you dont live in the transition zone and you don’t mind seeing endless trashy real estate signs by the road. Guess you feel ok with the concept that northern va is becoming an endless series of overpriced condominiums. Who was the one group that protested the takeover of the loudoun board by the far right developer minded clique? PEC. Get your facts straight.

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  4. LarryD Reply

    July 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    PEC flat out RUINED western Prince William county. Remember their “coming out cause” with Disney America? all the complaints on how it would ruin everything. They sold the land to developers who later built Dominion Valley and Piedmont Village who’s daily traffic are 3 times more than the WORST projections for Disney America and they give far less to taxes and contributed almost nothing to the infrastructure.

  5. Holtzman Oil Reply

    July 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    The PEC needs to be audited by the IRS. Maybe Miss Peggy can arrange that? Not. These guys make green a really bad color. Shame on them.

  6. HOLDER MUST RESIGN Reply

    July 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Disgusting. The PECers are not wanted in Fauquier. This group is destroying our county.

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