Gov. McAuliffe Signs Bill to Protect Farmers and Land Owners

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by Bryant Osborn | Corvallis Farms, Va

Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), which is a private 503(c) non-profit land trust, attracted a whole lot of unwanted attention by the General Assembly this year, and as a result, Gov. McAuliffe on Tuesday signed HB 1488, known as The Conservation Dispute Resolution Act, into law. It takes effect July 1st.

Martha Boneta and Del. Brenda Pogge introduced the bill in the General Assembly in January. At its introduction, Dr. Bonner Cohen of the property rights group National Center for Policy Research said, “We are calling on the legislature to protect property owners from a program that has no transparency, no standards and no protection for land owners.”

Liberty FarmThe bill racked up landslide victories: 20-2 in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, 87-9 in the full House, 12-2 (with one abstention) in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, and 32-6, without any debate, by the full Senate.

The bill went through several modifications, but according to Martha, “It still has incredible protections. This is unprecedented. This is the first time in the history of the [Virginia] conservation program that there has ever been protection put in to protect the land owners – ever! This is a huge, huge step.”

Martha Boneta is now responsible for two Virginia laws that provide major property rights protections to farmers and land owners: last year’s HB 1430, which was appropriately nicknamed the ‘Boneta Bill,’ and this year’s HB 1488, which could have been just as appropriately nicknamed the ‘PEC Bill.” That is quite some legislative record.

Last year’s ‘Boneta Bill’ protects customary activities at agricultural operations from local bans in the absence of substantial impacts on the public welfare. The law also requires a basis in health, safety, or public welfare for a local ordinance that restricts a list of activities, including the conduct of agri-tourism activities, the sale of agricultural or silvicultural products or related items, the preparation or sale of foods that otherwise comply with state law, and other customary activities. Localities are prohibited from subjecting those listed activities to a special-use permit requirement.

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This year’s Conservation Dispute Resolution Act allows a landowner, or other party to a conservation easement, to request that the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation use the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act to resolve a dispute relating to the interpretation of the easement.

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The conservation easements on Martha’s farm are administered by both PEC, which is a private land trust, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) which is a state governmental agency. Government agencies, such as VOF, are bound by state regulations on transparency, accountability and oversight, but private land trusts are not bound by those rules.

Martha has charged that PEC has trespassed repeatedly on her farm and has attempted to drive her off the farm through unwarranted and overly invasive conservation easement inspections, and an IRS audit she says was instigated by a PEC board member.

Last November, Del. Pogge predicted, “[private land trusts] put restrictions on the property owner – we are going to have to put some restrictions on them.”

PEC has claimed that General “Stonewall” Jackson and his men bivouacked on a part of Martha’s farm known as the Oak Grove on the evening of July 18, 1861 on a march from Winchester to the 1st Battle of Manassas. PEC forced Martha to fence-off the nearly twenty acre Oak Grove – at her expense – and they insisted that she not ever use it, claiming that it is hallowed ground. Martha lost the use of all that acreage, and left uncared for, the Oak Grove became overgrown.

Back in January as the General Assembly was beginning, the story broke that PEC apparently made the whole story up, and that there is no actual evidence that Gen. Jackson was ever on Martha’s farm.

The “Stonewall” Jackson revelation angered and disgusted many people.

It became a tipping point, and the opposition to HB 1488 began melting away. The opposition from the coalition of private land trusts – known as the Virginia Unified Land Trusts (VaULT) – began to crumble. The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and others, broke ranks and dropped their opposition to the bill, and HB 1488 began sailing to its bipartisan landslide victories.

In the end, PEC was nearly alone in its fight against HB 1488.

Martha Boneta and Del. Brenda Pogge deserve big thanks for bringing desperately needed transparency and accountability to private land trusts.

To quote Joel Salatin, “What good is protecting farmland if we don’t protect the farmers and their economic viability on the land?”

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County.  Bryant’s Fresh & Local columns on local-market agriculture now appear regularly here at the Virginia Free Citizen.  He can be reached at bryant@corvallisfarms.com

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