Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s Dishonest Dealing: A Boat Pier or Oil Wells?

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Bryant Osborn, Fresh and Local

As I wrote in previous columns, northern Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta’s battles with Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) have focused a whole lot of attention on Virginia’s land trusts.

PEC is a private, non-profit land trust.  Land trusts are supposed to work to conserve land from development by administering conservation easements.  A conservation easement is an agreement where a property owner gives up the rights to future development of their land in exchange for tax breaks.  Virginia annually gives away $100 million dollars in tax breaks for conservation easements, so despite their relative obscurity, land trusts are a very, very big business.

Martha Boneta vs. PEC

Martha has charged that PEC 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.  More recently, PEC appears to have committed fraud when Martha bought her farm, by filing a conservation easement that was dramatically different than the one Martha signed.

There has been a development this week in that story, and I will come back to that later.

Questionalbe Behavior at VOF

As I wrote in last week’s column, PEC’s behavior has now drawn attention to another case of questionable business behavior by a land trust, this time by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is a state governmental agency.

This new case involves Terrell Bowers who in 2002 and 2003 bought a 250 acre property in the Northern Neck’s Richmond County along the north east shore of the Rappahannock River.  Mr. Bowers originally bought the property for family getaways, but three years ago, he got county approval to develop and subdivide his property.

(Terrell Bowers is also a musician, guitarist, and songwriter, and he has a CD of southern roadhouse blues titled “Turning Point.”  You can check out the CD’s website at www.turningpointbytb.com)

To understand this story, you need to know that oil and gas have been discovered in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula in a shale formation called the Taylorsville Basin, and a Texas-based company, Shore Exploration and Production, has obtained leases on 84,000 acres in Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, King George and Westmoreland counties.

When Shore Exploration began leasing property in the formation, it ran into a problem.  Some of the land was covered by VOF easements designed to protect it from development, safeguard the water quality and preserve the rural character of the community.

According to the Virginia Pilot and reporter Tim Eberly, Shore Exploration communicated to Virginia officials that they wanted to ensure that future VOF easements didn’t prevent oil and gas drilling in the Taylorsville Basin.

VOF Allows Fracking

In 2012, the VOF changed its easement language to specifically allow hydraulic fracturing – also known as fracking – for oil and gas on lands protected by VOF agreements.  According to the Virginia Pilot, a review of email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the changes were made after entreaties by Shore Exploration and intercession by then Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s office.

Many people were outraged at the change.  What kind of land trust writes conservation easements with exemptions for industrial development?  Crony capitalism appeared to be corrupting the whole concept of conservation easements.  Bowing to immense public pressure, VOF flip-flopped and voted in April, 2014 to no longer accept easements that allow oil and gas drilling, but they let stand any previous easements that allowed it.

Going back to Mr. Bowers and his property, he hired one of the best conservation subdivision land planners in the country, Randall Arendt, whose plan dedicated 75% of the land to open space.

Richmond County did not want each of the 22 water-front lots to have its own pier, so they required Mr. Bowers to plan one community pier for the entire development, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) concurred with that requirement.

The property directly across the river from Mr. Bowers is owned by wealthy Richmond attorney Hill Wellford.   In an effort to stop Mr. Bowers’ Rappahannock Cliffs development plans, Mr. Wellford organized attacks on the community pier.

Well-Connected Hill Wellford Seeks to Block Competition

Hill Wellford’s friend and neighbor, Peter Bance, is on the VOF Board of Trustees.  Together, they convinced the VOF Chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time, Charles Seilheimer, to write a protest letter on official VOF stationary to VMRC opposing Mr. Bowers’ Rappahannock Cliffs community pier.

Rappahannock Cliffs

Mr. Seilheimer’s June, 2013 letter stated that opposition to the community pier was the official position of VOF, but in fact, he never got approval, or even discussed this matter with the other Board members before he sent the letter. Seilheimer simply sent it on his own.

As I also wrote last week, Mr. Seilheimer’s argument in his letter to VMRC was even more troubling than his unilateral action in sending the letter.  Hill Wellford’s property includes an 837 acre marsh, named Beverly Marsh, which has a conservation easement restricting its development. Mr. Seilheimer argued that VOF has the right to enforce the terms of Hill Wellford’s easement on Terrell Bowers’ property across the river to prevent Hill Wellford’s easement from being “diminished.”

But there is astonishing hypocrisy here.  Hill Wellford and his brother Harrison amended the 1977 conservation easement negotiated by their parents on their Kendale Farm (which made no reference to oil or gas) to specifically allow oil and gas exploration and extraction.

And it turns out that the conservation easement on the Wellford’s Beverly Marsh was written to specifically allow oil and gas exploration and extraction by fracking.  This might very well be the only conservation easement in the United States to permit fracking in a tidal marsh.

So Hill Wellford, opened up his conservation-easement-protected Kendale Farm and Beverly Marsh to oil and gas wells, while at the same time throwing a petulant temper-tantrum about the environmental impact of Terrell Bowers’ boat pier.

Wheat First Heir Joins In

And Hill Wellford is not the only one.  Jimmy Wheat is the son of deceased financier Jim Wheat, who started Wheat First Securities in Richmond and has been on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.  And it happens that Jimmy Wheat’s office is located next door to Peter Bance’s office.

Bance - Wheat office directory

Jimmy Wheat’s 4,000 acre Blandfield Plantation is slightly downstream from Mr. Bowers’ property.  Jimmy Wheat wrote a letter to VMRC protesting Mr. Bower’s pier.  In that letter, Mr. Wheat said he was in the process of placing much of Blandfield into conservation easement to “protect watershed and viewshed.”  He also described how his property and Beverly Marsh were important resting areas for waterfowl, and pointed out landowners’ difficulty of preserving “the rural and pastoral nature of their property.”  In his letter, he charged that Mr. Bowers was “singlehandedly going to profit while disrupting the multiple landowners and tens of thousands of acres that have been protected.”

Who Profits?

But there is a big problem here.  Jimmy Wheat’s Blandfield Plantation conservation easement specifically allows 88 oil wells and 24 gas wells.  In addition to the 100+ wells, his easement also permits 30 dwellings, boat houses, and docks – and the ability to expand the drilling area.  This was all sanctioned by VOF.

So now who is it that is really, “singlehandedly going to profit?”

Terrell Bowers notes wryly, “Jimmy Wheat’s protest letter seemed over-the-top at the time, but now knowing about his easement, it seems almost comical.”

So, what exactly is VOF’s position on the boat pier?  In an October, 2013 letter to VMRC – written after a meeting with Virginia’s Attorney General – VOF’s Executive Director Brett Glymph wrote, “The Virginia Outdoors Foundation has not and does not take any position on the [Rappahannock Cliffs community pier] application.  Any letter of communication stating otherwise does not reflect the position of the VOF Board of Trustees and was sent without Board action.”

But Hill Wellford, Peter Bance, Charles Seilheimer – among many others – continued to claim that Charles Seilheimer’s protest letter was proof that VOF opposed the boat pier.  Eventually Mr. Bowers’ attorney asked the Virginia Attorney General’s office for a “cease and desist” letter from the Attorney General’s office prohibiting almost two dozen people from alleging VOF opposition to the pier.

Do Land Trusts Really Work? For Whom?

This case, combined with Martha Boneta’s case, makes you wonder what exactly Virginia tax payers are getting for their $100 million every year.  Land trusts and conservation easements are highly touted for preserving agriculture, but it is hard to see any agricultural benefit in either of these cases.  And if land trusts allow fracking and oil and gas extraction from tidal marshes, it is hard to conclude that land trusts are conserving rural land from development.  Maybe it is overly cynical, but it would appear that the biggest beneficiaries of land trusts and conservation easements are really wealthy, well-connected land owners.

I would further suggest that if people really want to help Virginia agriculture, they should support the Virginia Food Freedom Act.  Not only would that provide a big boost to Virginia agriculture, but it would not cost any money.  More on that in the future.

And the recent development in Martha Boneta’s battle with PEC?  This week on the CFACT.org website, Dr. Bonner Cohen reports that PEC’s Heather Richards, a vice president for conservation and rural programs, has separated from PEC and her name has been removed from the PEC website.  Dr. Cohen wrote, “The abrupt departure of a high-ranking official from the Piedmont Environmental Council is fueling speculation that the controversial land trust is feeling the heat from revelations of its transgressions against [Martha Boneta].”

Apparently land trusts deserve a lot more public scrutiny.

Bryant OsbornBryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County.  He can be reached at bryant@corvallisfarms.com