Conservation Easements for Unsuspecting Farmers

072Orchard in northern Virginia
After Delegate Bobby Orrock introduced on January 8, 2014, HB 268 and Senator Richard Stuart filed a companion bill, SB51, Delegate Bob Marshall introduced on January 17, 2014, HB 1219.

The first two bills reintroduced the Right to Farm Act HB 1430 (Boneta Bill) which passed in the House but was defeated in the Virginia Senate last year. I have discussed the battle in my recent article, “Boneta Bill Part Deux.”

In case you wonder, why would anyone care what is happening in another state, rest assured that it is coming to your state or is already there. It is an important battle not just in Virginia. Property owners and farmers are fined, bullied, and threatened around the country based on zoning ordinances and environmental conservation easements with onerous requirements and inspections.

HB 268 addresses agricultural operations and local regulation of certain activities, “protecting customary agritourism activities from local bans in the absence of substantial impacts on the public welfare and requires certain localities to take certain factors into account when regulating agritourism activities.”

Because local boards of supervisors have abused their power in the past, “there has to be a basis in health, safety, or public welfare for a local ordinance to restrict activities such as agritourism, sale of agricultural or silvicultural products, related items, preparation or sale of foods that already comply with state laws, and other customary activities. Local boards are “prohibited from subjecting these activities to a special-use permit requirement.”

Delegate Bob Marshall’s bill HB 1219, introduced on January 17, 2014, “provides that local governments violating constitutional rights through zoning shall pay their victims (1) the amount of fines they sought to impose, and (2) actual damages including attorney fees. Local government officials who intentionally violate this law would also be liable.”

Had these bills been in place, Martha Boneta would not have been bullied and threatened with $5,000 fines per day by her county government when she held a pumpkin carving party for 10-year olds on her own property.

Mark Fitzgibbons, a Constitutional attorney, is of the opinion that “There is great but underutilized precedent for remedies against government officials who abuse their power to violate the rights of citizens. Virginians don’t need to go broke protecting their rights on their own property.”

HB 1219 will “authorize private citizens to file suit for damages, Virginia’s Attorney General to defend the victims, and give whistleblower protection to government employees who expose violations of this law.”

The problems with land use restrictions in Virginia run deep. For example, a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Warrenton, Virginia, Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), with its “comprehensive planning” of Virginia’s rural areas, has been successful in blocking Disney from opening a theme park in Prince William County twenty years ago.

More recently, PEC battled Trump Virginia Acquisitions, LLC, who bought Patricia Kluge’s Estate Winery and Vineyard in 2011 with the intent of expanding its dormant 9-hole golf course into an 18-hole course. The problem was that 216 acres of the 1,200 acre property had been placed by the former owner, Patricia Kluge, under “conservation easement” in 2006.

A “conservation easement” imposes certain restrictions on the homeowners’ use of their property in exchange for tax breaks. According to Dr. Cohen, “golf courses with conservation easements are common throughout the United States, including on courses owned by Donald Trump.”

PEC considered the project “inconsistent with the rural and agricultural character of the area,” citing traffic and noise. “In addition to the traffic and noise impacts, we also have concerns about water use, run-off, and septic issues.”

Martha Boneta had a conservation easement with PEC when she bought her farm. Martha uses tires on her property to “help hollow fields for plowing, train animals to move in a certain direction, and assist in planting. PEC sued Boneta, saying that the tires violated her agricultural conservation easement, and she was forced to store them in an enclosure.” Tires were the least of her numerous and constant problems with PEC.

On January 21, 2014, the new Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, announced more than $1 million in farmland preservation grants – “Eight localities receive funds to place working farmlands under permanent conservation easements.”

The counties of Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier, Isle of Wright, James City, Stafford, and the City of Virginia Beach will receive $149,678.46 each. Rappahannock County will receive $11,000. Since 2008, the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated $8.68 million in state matching funds for permanent conservation easements.

“Localities must use the grant monies to preserve farmland within their boundaries through local Purchase of Development Right (PDR) programs. PDR programs compensate landowners who work with localities to preserve their land permanently by voluntarily placing a perpetual conservation easement on it.”

At a time when food is expensive, we are using more crops for biofuels, and we have to import food from other nations, the obvious and most important question is – why would a landowner place good farmland under perpetual conservation easement in order to preserve it? Preserve working farmland for what?

A quick check of United Nation’s Agenda 21 40-chapter document on Sustainable Development, signed and adopted by 178 nations in 1992, reveals under Chapter 10 (Integrated Approach to the Planning and Management of Land Resources) a section 10.7 (c) which mandates to “establish a general framework for land use and physical planning within which specialized and more detailed sectoral plans (e.g., for protected areas, agriculture, forests, human settlements, rural developments) can be developed.”

Check the rural “comprehensive planning” in your area in synch with UN Agenda 21 and see how much of your property rights have already been taken away by regionalism, conservation easements, and through zoning laws passed by Boards of Supervisors without your knowledge, input, approval, or opportunity to vote.

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