Property Rights Foundation of America®
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"The Threat to Family Farms from Power-Hungry Local Officials and Well-Funded Land Trusts: One Woman's Story"

By Martha Boneta
Liberty Farm
Paris, Virginia

Seventeenth Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 26, 2013
The Century House, Latham, N.Y.

Thank you so much. Thank you. It is such an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to all of you. I'm so inspired. Legends like Jim Burling and Carol LaGrasse are near and dear to me and my heart and my family for fighting for property rights across the country. It's really just such a great joy.

Until recently, I spent all my time talking to livestock animals on the farm. So, you can imagine what a blessing it is to be out talking to folks. I want to start by telling you a little bit about myself. I grew up in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on what we were told growing up was a part of George Washington's vast farmland.

My mom always had a kitchen garden in the backyard and she would always say that the vegetables were so good because of George Washington's pigs. So from there really grew my love and my passion for being a Virginia farmer. Now my parents had another idea of what they wanted me to become. So, after finishing lots of education my heart was really longing and pulling me to work the land. And around six years ago my dream became reality.

Growing up my parents told my sisters and I that if we work really hard we can be anything we want to be in life. But what they didn't tell us — and I don't remember them ever saying — was that if you work really hard, if and only if the environmentalists and the conservationists and the land trusts agree and approve your dream, then you can actually become it. Never said that. Never heard them say that.

So, around six years ago my childhood dream became a reality. My family and I purchased Liberty Farm in Paris, Virginia. The land that we purchased was in incredible disrepair. And so much so that my father said it looked like quote, "a scene from the movie Deliverance." The trees were completely overgrown. There were trees growing in the barn complex. There was no water or real farming infrastructure so that we could actually begin having a working farm. We didn't realize how much money it would cost to create an environment where we could actually start farming. So, we exceeded our budget by far, digging into retirement and savings to have a working farm so that we can actually fulfill my dream.

Prior to purchasing Liberty Farm, I didn't even know what a conservation easement was and I'd never really heard of a land trust. But I thought to myself, "These guys must be the good guys." Right? I thought they must be the good guys. After all, they promised my family that we would be able to farm forever. They said that the easement would permit — and in fact it says so in writing — "industrial, commercial, and agricultural activity." The land trust, called the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), owned Liberty Farm and we would be buying our farm the land trust. We trusted them. We did not use our own lawyer. In fact, we received guidance from the land trust attorney and used their own settlement company. Again, we thought they were the good guys. They promised us we'd be able to do everything my family wanted to do. So there was no reason for us not to trust them. In fact, we even kept them apprised of our loan application on the farm. Who knew buying raw farmland with no residents would be so hard to find a mortgage company to finance? We later found out from discovery that the PEC was engaged in intimate contact with the local rural bank and was keenly aware of our finances.

We had to act quickly. According to the land trust we only had thirty days to acquire financing or we would lose our ten thousand dollar good-faith deposit. On the day of settlement, just minutes before transferring title to us, the PEC placed a conservation easement on our farm. The Piedmont Environmental Council is a 501(c)(3) trust that owned the farm we purchased. The PEC then placed the property in the conservation easement with the PEC themselves as the easement holder together with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation as co-holders.

To this day our family has never received a dime of tax credits, no charitable donation credit, or any other form of compensation for this conservation easement. The benefit went to the land trust. We were eager to get started and began bush-hogging the farm, repairing or replacing fencing, acquiring bee hives, acquiring livestock, starting to plow and till the land. Three several-ton roll offs were needed to discard all of the debris and junk from the farm.

Before the ink was even dry, the harassment started. Within thirty days of settlement, I had received a stand-down letter from the environmental land trust. Emails and phone calls telling me I was not permitted to do anything on our farm without prior written consent from the PEC. I inquired as to where in the easement language they were given any such authority because they had no authority to do so. And the answer was we were told to stand down or they would have an attorney and begin litigation against my family.

We were told, among other things, that we had to fence off nearly twenty acres of our farm land in the oak grove because it was deemed to be "hallowed ground." When we protested, arguing that nothing in the easement required my family to fence off that much land, they again threatened us with litigation. So my family lost use and enjoyment of nearly twenty acres of our farmland.

Our animals were not permitted to find shelter under the trees. Our family could not picnic or have recreation of any kind in the oak grove and left uncared for that acreage had become a jungle. Finally, I met with the president of the PEC. Easement in hand, I pointed out that the easement says nothing of holding nearly twenty acres of our farm hostage from use. And furthermore, no blood had ever been shed on our farm. I explained that I couldn't find anywhere that any battle had ever been fought on our farm! Finally, the PEC admitted they were wrong. But to this day we have never been compensated. My family has never received a dime for the fencing materials, the labor, or the loss of use of our land for two years because the land trust made a mistake.

The horror continued as the PEC, working with the county zoning authority, had government officials demand to come and inspect our barn complex and farm structures. Even though in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in our county farm, structures are exempt from meeting building code requirements as long as they're engaged in agricultural activity. The land trust would also show up unannounced, often with as many as six people at a time. And even when we were not at the farm. We learned from discovery and the Freedom of Information Act requests that the PEC, together with the county officials, were doing drive-bys of our farm, monitoring our activity and taking pictures without our knowledge, often several times a day.

So, according to the land trust everything we did violated the viewshed. Again, another term of art I had never heard used so much. We were told that the fencing we chose was distasteful and offensive. They even objected to fencing that we erected around a small circa 1800's grave that was there prior to our purchase. And even when the land trusts themselves owned and had rented the land to Virginia Beef, they had permitted thousands of pounds of cattle to defecate on the stones themselves. My family decided we had a duty to fence off these stones to protect them. We thought they'd be happy for us. I mean, after all, we were preserving the historical site and protecting the viewshed. Absolutely not. The fencing was offensive. I thought the PEC was supposed to protect such sites and instead I was told the fencing was ugly and interrupted the viewshed.

Apparently, this viewshed issue was very important because next my family was told that we had to relocate our RV — our recreational vehicle — because our RV violated the viewshed. Tires that we used on our farm — that's common practice on farmland — for harrowing, planting, and training, also had to be removed because they, too, violated the viewshed. We quickly learned that it mattered not what the word stated on the easement because the land trust could interpret them any way they wanted.

Then the PEC, a 501(c)(3) land trust, entered into a joint litigation agreement with a private citizen, a private inurement with a neighbor that owned the farm next to me. Let me say that again. A land trust, a 501(c)(3) land trust, entered into a private litigation — joint litigation agreement — with a citizen, my neighbor. In so doing my neighbor became empowered and stated to the press he would stop at nothing to preserve the viewshed. In fact, my neighbor had been awarded Conservationist of the Year by this same land trust. Soon, my tiny village of Paris with less than sixty human inhabitants had become citizen police for the land trust. They were advised by the PEC of the horrible things "that woman" was doing on her farm. It mattered not if the allegations were true or not, what mattered was that I had made the PEC angry. I had poked the bear and shaken its bones. By challenging their authority my family and I would soon realize that our lives would become a living nightmare.

The inspections became more frequent and more threatening. Invasive interrogations of what we were doing and demanding to know our intentions for the farm and wanting to tell us how to care for our animals and livestock. Here again, nothing in the easement permitted them to even ask such questions. I'm going to show you a video of one of the inspections when the PEC was on their best behavior because of the cameras. (Video plays) On the video she's demanding to look in my closet. Needless to say, nothing in the conservation easement permitted them access to my closet.

The farm had five existing entrances at the time of purchase. It sits on the corner of three major roadways. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) was contacted — by guess who? — to dig a trench alongside my farm entrance to prevent cars parking in front of the entrance. The cars, you see, violated the viewshed. VDOT was also told to cut off my access to my farm from the other entrances limiting my access to one way to access my farm. We fought VDOT showing records of entrances in existence for the last fifty years. However, they came with government tractors and dug a trench to prevent cars from parking on my own farmland. To add injury, VDOT sent me a bill for $1,700. I contacted them and said I did not believe I should have to pay $1,700 to have a trench dug along my property to prevent vehicles from parking there. They said that again, sounding and echoing much like the land trust, they said, "Do as we say or we'll sue you or put a lien on your property." So my family paid the fee to avoid litigation or trouble.

So, who is the Piedmont Environment Council? Has anybody in this room heard of the Piedmont Environmental Council? No one? OK. So, the PEC, their mission is to direct growth to the right places. To help humans appreciate the natural world and identify special places to respect, to reduce threats to the region of change — because change is very scary. Right? — to safeguard landscape and heritage, respond to forces of change in land use and transportation. And the gentleman that went before me talked about how important that is to stay on top of land trusts and he's absolutely correct. One of the founders of the PEC believes the world would be a better place if we end population growth through healthy and intentional childbearing. What is intentional childbearing?

Audience member: It's when the government says you can have a child.

Ms. Boneta: Yeah. And whose primary goal is the transformation of cultures from consumerism to sustainability by accelerating to the sustainable world.

In 2009 my family and I couldn't believe what was happening. We felt like our world was crashing down around us. Constant phone calls, emails, threats of litigation. We couldn't imagine what would happen next. Then the doorbell rang. The land trust was suing us. At that point we were utterly shocked. We couldn't understand why they didn't like us. I'm an organic sustainable farmer that runs a farm animal sanctuary. I leave a very small footprint. They should love me. Apparently that wasn't the case. They filed a lawsuit against me over things like a twenty-nine dollar garden hose attachment that violated the viewshed, even though nobody could see it from anywhere around our sixty-four-acre farm. They also sued us over tires that we use in our agricultural practices and fencing, among other things.

Just when we wondered what they could do to us next, the animal warden was summoned because they were given a picture of an abused and neglected horse that was not ours and told that our horse looked like the one in the picture. All false allegations. When the county animal warden reported back to the land trust that my animals were well cared for, the warden was told that they would go over his head and threatened his job. In addition, even though there were no violations on the farm an animal rescue was also summoned to our farm and also reported that our animals were all well cared for. And all of the matters were dismissed. It mattered not what the truth was because even though there were no problems with the care of our animals and these were all false allegations, the word was out that the animal warden had been summoned to our farm.

We had college students that were volunteering on our farm during spring break to help us prepare for harvest. This is a common practice. Students come and they learn about farming, animal husbandry, and agriculture during spring break when they could be in Cancún having fun with their friends. It's a blessing and it's good fellowship. It's good for the community and it's good for the farming community.

Audience member: Good for you.

Ms. Boneta: Yeah. Thank you. To our shock and dismay three armed sheriff's deputies came to my farm and interrogated them. They demanded to know what they were doing on my farm, where they were from, if they were being paid, and where they were staying. Finally they asked for identification, address and phone number, contact information. We were terrified and felt like our world was crashing down, Surely, this wasn't the United States of America. We were then accused of running and operating a boarding house that never existed.

This was a very difficult time in my family's life. Farming is very hard work. It is the hardest I'd ever worked in my life. Has anybody here ever been a farmer, or is a farmer now or comes from a farming family? Yeah. Farming is a profession of hope and when land trusts in partnership with the government come in and overregulate it's crushing and devastating.

Through the Freedom of Information Act and discovery we learned that a Mr. Peter B. Schwartz, a government elected official, supervisor in my county, that formerly was the chairman of the land trust had conspired to have my farm mortgage called in or purchased. On letterhead and in emails he conspiring to drive us off the land. Surfaced were letters to my mortgage company encouraging them to call in our family farm mortgage or to sell it to them. The same elected official sent an email to my zoning administrator saying, "Get her for anything you can," as well as emails referring to me as a "property rights nut." And, "Who is watching over those property rights nuts?"

Then it happened. My family received a zoning violation threatening us with up to $15,000 per day in violation for something as heinous and horrible as having a birthday party for eight ten-year-old little girls on our private property, carving pumpkins in our pumpkin patch, and selling vegetables and honey on our rural agriculturally-zoned farmland in an agricultural district in a right-to-farm state. You might be wondering how did the zoning administrator even know you had a birthday party for eight ten-year-old little girls when you're surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland? It seemed the zoning administrator was trolling my Facebook page.

It mattered not that I had already obtained a retail farm store business license. It mattered not that every farm around us did the exact same things we were doing. It mattered not that we were on sixty-four acres surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland nor did it matter that we were the only farm in the entire county required to obtain a business license for a farm store and the only one ever found in violation. What mattered was that the land trust, the Piedmont Environmental Council, had sent emails and in private meetings indicated that they did not want people — humans — infiltrating my farm and that I had challenged the land trust's authority. You see nothing in my easement prevents us from doing exactly what we were doing. So the PEC used their pull with the supervisor that had been on their board of directors — the chair of the board of directors and was now the supervisor — to put zoning pressure on to "get that woman for anything you can." I was cited for "operating a farm sales establishment and for conducting temporary or special events on a site in conjunction with a farm sales establishment without approval of a special exception use permit." That would require an entire full-blown hearing for the birthday party and carving pumpkins and anything else like that.

The same county found me in violation while I had an active business license for a retail farm store. We were stunned. In a moment my dreams had been destroyed. I knew then that we were going to lose our family farm and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

But then something amazing happened. Thousands of Virginians became outraged. Calling, emailing, sending letters, and writing articles to the local newspapers demanding that my freedom be restored. We were shut down when we were in full-on harvest and ended up donating thousands of pounds of vegetables to local food banks because we didn't have an infrastructure to source them out. Thousands of Virginians were demanding that freedom be restored. Some drove over five hours with their families to protest what my county and the environmental land trust did to me. There were pitchfork protests with both consumers and farmers all over the state and even in Richmond. They came in droves chanting, "Leave us alone. What do we want? Freedom for Martha. When do we want it. Now!" The next thing I knew it made national news.

A local delegate was outraged and that is how the Boneta Bill was born. I thought my prayers had been answered. The Boneta Bill was designed to protect small family farmers from having what happened to me happen to them, to prevent local counties from exceeding what they were permitted to enforce on small family farms. The bill passed the House on a bi-partisan basis by flying colors. Virginians came from all over the state and impacted the General Assembly. They had never seen such a tsunami like this. The issue hit a raw nerve and the environmentalists were actively lobbying now against the Boneta Bill because they never dreamed it would ever pass the House and the General Assembly. They were in full force, so ultimately the Boneta Bill was defeated in the Senate Ag committee. However, every member of the committee agreed that the Boneta Bill should come back once a task force had been created to discuss the issue so that a bill could be created that satisfied all of the stakeholders.

But, you see, I had poked the bully bureaucrats and the enviro-extremist bear. I had shaken the elitist NIMBYs' bones and I would be made an example of. The next thing I knew the same board of supervisors, the same board of supervisor, Peter Schwartz, who was also at one time on the board of directors for the land trust, was publicly disclosing that I was a subject of an IRS audit before my family ever received the audit. And I'll say that again. An elected official was publicly disclosing that I was the subject of an IRS audit before my family ever received notice of it. Fortunately, whistle blowers have come forward and now the Treasury Department IG is investigating how an elected official who was formerly the chairman of the land trust knew I was the subject of an IRS audit before I did.

Coincidentally, Peggy Richardson, who was formerly the head of the IRS under President Clinton is also currently on the board of directors for the land trust. And Peter Schwartz, the elected official, appointed her. When Peggy Richardson was asked what her involvement was she said, "Coincidences just happen."

I have learned a lot from this experience. I've learned that mean people are alive and well. I've learned that if I stand up in support of freedom and property rights that Hell hath no fury like an environmentalist scorned. I've learned that I've become a target to be attacked by tyrannical environmentalists and the zoning lords. I've learned that if I fight to defend my most fundamental rights my family and yours can become targets by those with greater means, anti-American values, with an attempt to take away our fundamental right to farm and our property rights. In fact, one elected official stood up in an audience of over one hundred and fifty-five elected Virginia officials and said that, "If that woman had her way with state-wide legislation to protect small family farmers from overregulation at the county level that there will be strip clubs in every chicken house in Virginia!" Now, folks, you know they don't have a good argument when they have to go there. Was that the best argument they could come up with, really? The community was so outraged that massive blogging took place over this statement. Images appeared all over Facebook, tweets and the Internet. Local articles were written embarrassing him, demanding that he resign or issue a formal apology. Needless to say, no apology had ever been issued. However, the director of the Virginia Association of Counties, known as VACO, did personally tell me that VACO did not condone that behavior.

So, where does this leave my family and our farm today? I live in constant fear of being hauled off to jail, fined, or hauled into court. You see, my county's zoning violations in addition to carrying up to $5,000 per day, per violation, also carry criminal ramifications. I wonder every second of every day if the land trust will succeed in having our mortgage called in or forcing us into bankruptcy defending our rights. After the story was leaked about the IG investigation, my home was vandalized. The mail was taken out of my mailbox and we were forced to install 24-7 video cameras. Through FOIA and discovery we learned that the land trust conservationists had joked about going pigeon shooting and that if they missed and a bullet hit me, "Oh, well."

The Boneta Bill Two is coming back to the General Assembly again. Since the last session the support has exploded and thousands of Virginians have signed petitions and are spinning off their own farm freedom activist groups. But without paid lobbyists or influential support against the powerful environmental land trusts, what are the chances?

Today we have over 250 farm animals, produce many tons of vegetables, fruits, turkey, duck, chicken, and emu eggs, herbs, and we also have an apiary. In addition, we produce around a thousand pounds a year of raw fiber from our herds of sheep, alpaca, and llama, and thousands of bales of hay. We also make goat's milk soap, beeswax candles, and crafts by hand. I am supposed to be living my childhood dream but instead my family and I have to be in fear every day of losing our farm and the land we love. We have had to dig into our savings and retirement to fight back against the constant assault on our rights. I'm here to tell you that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone, and it could happen to you. I don't want any American to ever have to suffer the way my family has under the boot of conservationists, conservation easements holding hands with local bureaucrats. At the end of the day, there is something so very wrong when our children can no longer have lemonade stands, birthday parties, or carve pumpkins on our very own property without a site plan, special exception permit, administrative permit, or a full-blown hearing without the approval of the environmental police. Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is only one generation away from extinction. ...[I]t must be fought for and protected."

If we the people are not relentlessly defending our freedoms and property rights and those of our fellow citizens we will surely see them disappear in our time. Conservation groups have learned to manipulate or collaborate with local government to invade our property rights. The provisions in the new Boneta Bill as coming forward during this next General Assembly are grounded in common law but are revolutionary and may just be one of the biggest new developments to effectively protect property rights and farmers. Local governments would have the burden of identifying why their land use ordinances are needed to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Plus the burden would shift to the local government when ordinances are challenged on Constitutional grounds. The bill also provides a model for remedies against local government and government officials who abuse their power. These changes will help reverse dangerous trends against property rights and are a major new initiative that other states should copy.

I've learned there's a price to pay for pushing back against powerful land trusts and that at the end of the day my family may lose everything we have. But I've also learned that despite the pain and hardship I continue to endure. We are very grateful for the support we've received form so many people like yourselves. And it's my faith in God, my family that keeps me, gives me the courage to continue on this journey. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and for standing with me and I hope you'll continue to do everything you can to safeguard our most fundamental rights — property rights. Thank you and God bless you.

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