Martha Boneta is a farmer in Paris, Virginia which is in northern Virginia. She has a conservation easement on her property that in exchange for certain tax benefits from the state and Federal government, she agrees to abide by limits on development on her property.
The environmentalist organization Piedmont Environmental Council holds the easement for Boneta and inspects her property periodically for compliance and in fact such inspections are a normal part of the easement agreement.
If any violations are found, in most cases, the organization and the property owner try to resolve them by mutual agreement, however Boneta alleges that PEC used the inspection process as a way to harass her and force her off her property.
Robert Marmet knew he was supposed to inspect Martha Boneta’s farm, but he didn’t know exactly what for. He knew there were limits on what he could inspect, but he had no idea where they were.
So when Marmet, a senior energy policy analyst with the Piedmont Environmental Council, and his partner Mike Kane, a conservation officer with the group, turned up June 12 to inspect Boneta’s Liberty Farm in Paris, Va., they more or less inspected what they wanted to inspect.
They walked through the upstairs and downstairs portion of the barn that sits on the property. They inspected every room within—bathrooms, closets, storage rooms and offices. They looked over the farmer’s personal effects and even toured the basement area of the barn that housed some of the animals. They inspected “The Smithy,” an historical structure on the property that was once a blacksmith shop. They stood on chairs to peer into the loft area.
This video is illustrative of the confrontation between the PEC and Boneta:
Going through her private belongings wasn't the only the PEC did in its alleged campaign of intimidation against Boneta. They've also filed lawsuits against her and allegedly a member of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, Peter Schwartz, who was also a former member of the PEC's board of directors, pressured the country to strictly enforce zoning restrictions on her.
In addition, a former IRS director sits on PEC's board. Ms. Boneta has been under an IRS audit for her tax filings in 2010 and 2011. Even more disturbing, it appears that Schwartz knew about the IRS audit of Boneta before she was served her notice in July 2012.
Conservation easements can be sold and transferred to the government and other land trusts at a profit and are perpetual. If a property owner is in violation of easement, fines and other legal penalties can be assessed on the owner. If they pile up, they can very well force a owner off the property.
All across the country, conservation easements have been used as a vehicle for land grabs by government agencies and green groups. The PEC, for its part, denies wrongdoing, but there are many questions that need to be answered such as the extent of the ties between Faquier County government and the PEC.
Whenever the government sets up authorities like the PEC that can be used to violate citizen's rights, there is always the potential for corruption and abuse. That's precisely what needs to be investigated in cases like Ms. Boneta's.