An environmental group that stands accused of overstepping its inspection authority and trespassing across a Virginia farm also tried to have video cameras installed to monitor the property.
An officer of the Piedmont Environmental Council proposed that one of that group’s board members “runs a security company and could offer the use of security cameras to record visitors,” according to documents examined by The Daily Signal.
Martha Boneta, who owns Liberty Farm in Paris, Va., last year sued the Piedmont Environmental Council and others because, she said, PEC encouraged Fauquier County officials to harass her with citations of zoning violations and other actions.
As previously reported by The Daily Signal, Boneta says PEC’s inspections have gone far beyond what is required to assure compliance with an easement on the property.
Documents obtained by The Daily Signal show the environmental group sought not only to monitor Liberty Farm through increasingly invasive inspections but also to install the video cameras to monitor visitors.
However, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a quasi-state agency created by the state legislature to preserve open space, would not go along.
‘Desire to Peep and Spy’
A “stewardship contact log” maintained by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation shows that Heather Richards, vice president of conservation and rural programs for the Piedmont Environmental Council, contacted the outdoors agency on Sept. 28, 2010.
Richards wrote that, driving by Boneta’s farm, she noticed “small signs advertising produce, herbs, etc, for purchase as well as a [organic tea] café,” which, she said, may be in violation of terms for commercial use.
PEC’s Richards told the outdoors agency that “she has a board member who runs a security company and could offer the use of security cameras to record visitors,” according to the log.
A Virginia Outdoors Foundation official, identified in correspondence as Andrea Reese, resisted PEC’s request to install cameras but indicated she would conduct her own investigation. Reese wrote:
VOF has not yet enforced a provision about [the] number of people on a property and would not expect to have a strong PR or legal position in this instance.
Boneta said she was aghast at PEC’s continuing “desire to peep and spy on individuals” who enter her property:
It is terrifying to think that as Americans we have to live in fear of having our personal, private guests to our farm monitored and videotaped.
Mark Fitzgibbons, a lawyer and neighbor of Boneta’s who has closely followed the case, told The Daily Signal that PEC’s correspondence with the Outdoors Foundation bolsters Boneta’s legal complaints.
“That the PEC expressed a willingness to use video surveillance to spy on easements on private property is Orwellian and disgusting enough, but that also appears to fit a pattern of exceeding its easement enforcement authority,” Fitzgibbons said.
Their complaints about a farmer’s selling agricultural products basically destroys PEC’s credibility and façade of ‘Buy fresh, buy local.’ PEC will also have a difficult time showing it did not collude with Fauquier County against Martha Boneta on these same charges.
In her suit filed last September in state court, Boneta alleges PEC colluded with government officials and realtors in an effort to force her off the property.
The suit claims PEC and Peter Schwartz, a member of the elected Fauquier County Board of Supervisors who used to be on PEC’s board, held meetings specifically to discuss how to cite Boneta for zoning violations at her farm.
Other electronic messages and written communications obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests appear to confirm these claims.
Also at those meetings, according to records and documents, were Phillip and Patricia Thomas, owners of Talbot Real Estate in nearby Middleburg, Va.
Boneta’s suit alleges that PEC, along with the Thomases, “repeatedly attempted to convince the zoning administrator and local government officials, such as Schwartz, to cite Paris Farm with zoning violations.”
Boneta’s suit also alleges PEC violated the Virginia Conservation Easement Act by entering into a “Joint Representation and Confidentiality Agreement” with the Thomases in matters concerning her farm.
Phillip Thomas owned Liberty Farm until he sold it to PEC in 2000. The environmental group sold it to Boneta in 2006, along with an easement that included certain restrictions aimed at preserving the historical and scenic view of the property.
In an easement, a property owner signs a document that provides for compensation in return for the property owner’s agreement to withhold specified land from commercial development.
Targeted Zoning Changes
Boneta says she has not received any tax breaks for the easement during the time she has owned Liberty Farm.
In the previous round of litigation, PEC accused her of violating the agreement in several ways, principally by operating an apartment on the property.
PEC denies any involvement with the zoning citations.
But the Board of Supervisors approved amendments to the county’s zoning ordinance that some say were designed solely to ensnare Boneta. Those changes prompted state legislation known as the Boneta Bill.
And the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to uphold a series of $15,000-per-day fines against Boneta based on the zoning amendments.
PEC apparently has targeted Boneta since at least 2009, when the environmental group accused the farm owner of violating the easement terms because of agricultural tires and a $29 hose attachment that PEC said interfered with the viewshed.
In a counterclaim that same year, Boneta argued PEC wasn’t a qualified easement holder and should not be able to piggyback with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation as a co-holder.
“Virginia law does not permit a property owner to own property and to own an easement simultaneously on the same property,” her counterclaim said.
PEC Challenges Daily Signal
The Piedmont Environmental Council has resisted the discovery process in the current litigation. PEC argued in court papers that Boneta’s request for information about the environmental group’s relationship with the Thomases is “overly broad, unduly burdensome and seeks information that is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”
A judge ordered PEC to release at least some of the requested documents and ordered Boneta to turn over some documents as well.
The case is expected to go to trial in October in Fauquier County Circuit Court.
The articles [in The Daily Signal] fail to mention that all of PEC’s inspections of [Boneta’s] property have been conducted with Ms. Boneta’s prior knowledge, participation and consent after notice to her counsel. Contrary to the articles, the PEC employees who have conducted the inspections of [Boneta’s] property are very familiar with the terms of the easement, the settlement agreement and the final order.
PEC, however, declined to comment about its joint agreement with former Liberty Farm owners Phillip and Patricia Thomas.
Fitzgibbons, the lawyer who is Boneta’s neighbor, suggests that as a result there is ample room to question the veracity of the environmental group’s prior statements:
PEC’s desire for video spying certainly conflicts with its prior statement to The Daily Signal that they give farmers prior ‘knowledge, participation and consent’ of inspections. Their attempt in Martha’s lawsuit to put a gag order on discovery to keep information away from the news media seems designed to hide their bad and possibly illicit behavior.