UPDATE: On January 4, 2017 the Fauquier County Circuit Court dismissed the Piedmont Agricultural Academy (PAA) lawsuit against The Piedmont Environmental Council with prejudice. The primary basis for the Court’s ruling was that PAA failed to support its allegations of misconduct on the part of PEC.
The Piedmont Environmental Council co-holds a conservation easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation on a 64 acre property in Paris, VA. The property is owned by Piedmont Agriculture Academy, LLC (PAA). Martha Boneta is the managing member of PAA.
PEC Purchased the Land in 2000
In 2000, PEC purchased approximately 1232 acres of Ovoka Farm from Mr. Phillip S. Thomas. When PEC acquired the property from Mr. Thomas, it was made up of 35 separate parcels of land. Over the next twelve years, PEC protected the property with conservation easements which limited the number of times it could be divided and specified permitted and prohibited uses of the land. PEC sold portions of the property (subject to easement) to public and private landowners, with a significant portion of it going to the National Park Service to realign and improve the Appalachian Trail as it passes through the area.
As a non-profit, PEC received no tax or other financial benefits for the easements, but considers the protection of the iconic landscape surrounding Paris to be one of the organization’s signature accomplishments in its 41 year history.
Conservation Easement and Sale of 64 Acres in 2006
A 64-acre parcel, located between Route 50, Route 17 and Gap Run Road was sold by PEC to Mrs. Martha Malawer (now Mrs. Martha Boneta) in 2006. In 2007 she gave it to Piedmont Agriculture Academy, LLC, a Virginia limited liability company which she established. The property in question is part of one of the most visible landscapes in Virginia, one that tens of thousands of people pass through each year. It is also visible from one of the most visited sections of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and is part of the open space that surrounds the village of Paris, one of the anchors of the Crooked Run Rural Historic District. Historically, the parcel was part of a farm surrounding “Liberty Hall” a house which dates to the 1840’s and stands today directly across Gap Run Road from the Boneta property.
In order to preserve the property’s unique historic, scenic, and cultural values and to ensure its availability for agricultural use in future generations, the land was sold with a very protective conservation easement which allowed few changes to the exterior appearance of the property and allowed for just one residence: an apartment of no more than 1,600 square feet to be constructed in the large Barn Complex. The easement was intended to safeguard the historic and scenic values of the property, the farm soils, and historic structures and enhance water quality in the streams running through the fields.
To protect the quiet, rural character of the Village of Paris, the easement also placed strict limits on the number of people who could visit the property each day in connection with the commercial or industrial activities permitted under the easement. The property was sold at well below market price due to the restrictions contained within the easement, and those restrictions were reviewed with and acknowledged by Mrs. Boneta, during the contract negotiations and again at the time of the sale.
By purchasing the property with this conservation easement in place, Mrs. Boneta agreed to be bound by those terms -- which included restrictions on the use of the property and a regular schedule of inspections to assure that the easement was adhered to.
Since the Sale
Since the sale of the property, PEC has attempted to work with Mrs. Boneta as she improved the property and developed her plans for the farm. We’ve engaged in a dialogue over which changes to the property are appropriate, given the significant scenic conservation values protected by the easement. At no time have we attempted to prohibit her from farming or keeping livestock on the property.
Monitoring conservation easements is a standard procedure, required by the governmental agencies which oversee land trusts and easements. These visits are normally a friendly meeting between the landowner and land trust staff. Frequently, the land trust will take photographs while on-site to document the condition of the property at the time of the visit because staff can change from year to year and we need to know what the previous monitor had seen. We always make our best effort to respect the privacy of landowners, and make these visits as timely, efficient, and pleasant as possible.
Unfortunately, we did not see eye to eye with Mrs. Boneta in regards to the specific implementation of our easement monitoring and enforcement responsibilities, particularly with respect to any residential use of structures on the property. We ended up in court to clarify our right and responsibility to monitor the property to ensure the terms of the easement were being upheld. After over two years of litigation the case was settled in 2011, when all parties agreed to allow PEC to monitor the property consistent with the terms of the easement, including the right to enter both the Barn Complex, and another structure (known as The Smithy), several times a year to determine whether they had been converted for residential use. The terms of the settlement were entered as a Final Order by the Fauquier County Circuit Court on October 11, 2011. At that time, Mrs. Boneta agreed, and the Court ordered, that the Smithy would not be used as a residence except during construction of the barn apartment, and then only with notice to PEC.
As an accredited land trust, PEC and other land trusts across the country take our responsibility to uphold conservation easements in perpetuity seriously, and work hard to maintain positive relationships with landowners. We are saddened by the public misrepresentations about the terms of this conservation easement, the facts surrounding the court case and its ensuing settlement, and our actions to monitor and steward the terms of the easement.
Since conservation easements are agreements between a land trust and the landowner, we would not typically discuss the details of our relationship publicly. However, given the significant amount of misinformation now in the public arena, we felt compelled to put forward some of the missing facts of the case.
- During the Fall of 2013, Piedmont Agriculture Academy, LLC filed a lawsuit against The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) regarding its property. It voluntarily withdrew its case against PEC via a Nonsuit which was accepted and ordered by the Fauquier Circuit Court on September 5, 2014.
- As part of their November 2014 Board Meeting, VOF included an agenda item on the PAA easement. In preparation for that meeting, PEC provided the following memo to give background information to VOF Board members and to respond to misleading allegations that have been asserted in a number of different forums. Read the memo >>
- On November 5, 2014, in preparation for the VOF Board meeting and in response to a recent statement by Piedmont Agricultural Academy's counsel, PEC submitted a letter rebutting additional allegations. Read the letter >>
- At the conclusion of the November 5, 2014 agenda item, VOF passed a resolution encouraging all parties to work together to find a practical solution.
- We are currently working with VOF and Ms. Boneta to resolve any issues, and we hope to agree on a positive resolution.