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Conservation Easements and the Urge to Rule

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By Tom DeWeese

Conservation easements. The Green Mafia
tells us this is the only way to save the family farm.
Without its tax credits and restrictions on development
rights, America will be paved over and Astroturf will
replace sod. We’re in crisis, they tell us. However, as
H.L Mencken once warned, “A plan to save humanity
is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”
Conservation and environmental groups openly
advocate the conservation easements as the answer to
saving farm land, as do state departments of
agriculture, farm bureaus, and the federal government.
A full court press is on to lock in millions of acres of
private property under the blazing headline “Save the
Family Farm.”
There’s no question that the family farm is
under assault. Taxes, international trade agreements,
inflation, and government regulations are eating away
at the ability to keep the farm operating. I’ve never
met a farmer who wanted to give up and stop working
the land that perhaps his ancestors first acquired. In
most cases it’s agony for a farmer to decide to sell his
property. On the other hand, the land is his main asset.
To provide a good life for the family, selling the land,
many times to developers is necessary for survival.
However, there is now a much more lethal
threat facing small farmers, and the outrageous fact is,
this threat is being disguised as a way to help them.
The real threat is the green solution – “conservation
easements.” And farmers are falling into its trap across
the country.
Conservation easements are promoted by land
trusts and environmental groups. Tax breaks are
promoted. Even cash is offered those farmers willing
to sell their development rights, under the argument
that this will drive away the temptation to sell the land
to nasty developers, thus keeping it farm land The
clever slogan, “farm land lost is farm land lost forever”
helps sell the case for easements.
The promoters of such ideas are very good with
the sales pitch. If it were politically correct to do so,
one could actually hear “God Bless America” playing
in the background as the promises to save the family
farm roll off the pitchman’s tongue.
Say proponents, “A conservation easement is a
voluntary perpetual agreement that restricts nonagricultural uses such as mining and large scale
residential and commercial development.” They boldly
promote the easements by promising that “the
landowner continues to own, live on and use the land.”
They even promise that the land can be passed down to
heirs, along with generous tax credits. What’s not to
like? Desperate farmers are flocking to the pitchman’s
wagon to buy his life-saving potion.
Of course, as another famous pitchman, P.T
Barnum, once said, “there’s a sucker born every
minute.” Farmers beware the slick talker who has the
answers to your woes. His answers may well be your
demise – and your farm’s. It’s wise to read the fine
print of a conservation easement agreement. Here are
some facts.
The facts about conservation easements
In a typical conservation easement, a private
Land Trust organization purchases some or all of the
“bundle” of a property owners rights. The bundle
includes development rights for the property; the ability
to overrule the owner’s choice of how to use the
property

including adding more buildings or
renovating or rebuilding existing buildings;
in the case of farmers, it may include
decisions on which fields to use for
planting , or even which crops to grow and
the technique to be used. All of these things
come under the command of the easement.
And all of it may become the decision of
the Land Trust, because once the
conservation easement agreement is signed
the owner’s rights are legally subservient to
his new partner, the Trust.
True, in exchange, the property
owner receives charitable deductions on
federal taxes based on the difference
between the values of the land before and
after granting the easement. The property
owner receives relief from federal estate or
inheritance taxes. Many states provide
income tax credits and property tax relief.
And the owner receives a payment for his
development rights.
In the beginning it all sounds good.
Money in the pocket; the farm safe from
development; and the ability to practice the
beloved tradition of farming. Well, maybe.
The fact is, under the easement, the
owner has sold his property rights and
therefore no longer has controlling interest
in his property. Through the restrictions
outlined in the easement, property usage is
now strictly controlled, including everyday
decisions on running the farm. In many
cases, the Conservation group that controls
the easement demands strict adherence to
“sustainable” farming practices.” That
means strict controls on how much energy
or water can be used in the farming
process, access to streams for the livestock,
use of fertilizer, etc, are all under the
direction of the Land Trust. And there’s
more. Certain details weren’t revealed to
the land owner as he signed on the dotted
line. For example:
 Trusts often re-sell the easement to other
conservation groups. They sell and resell
them like commodities. The farmer may
not know who holds the control over his
land. For these groups, the easements
become a significant profit center as they
rake in fees for each new easement they
sign up.
 Worse, the conservation group may work
directly with government agencies,
helping to establish new regulations
which alter best management practices,
driving up compliance costs. Eventually
these cost increases can force owners to
sell their land at a reduced price.
 This is especially effective when trying
to dislodge a land owner who has
refused to sell his land to the government
or sign a conservation easement. The
Nature Conservancy is a master at this
trick, creating millions of dollars of
income for the group. Its favorite
practice is to tell the land owner that the
government intends to take the land, but
if they sell to the Conservancy then it
will guarantee that the land will stay in
private hands. But of course, since the
government intends to take the land it is
now worth much less. So they get the
landowner to sell at a reduced rate. Then
the Conservancy calls the government
agency to tell them the good news that
they have the land. And the agency pays
the Conservancy full market value. They
call that “Capitalism with a heart!!”
 Because ownership rights are muddled
between taxes, restrictions and best
practices requirements, it can be difficult
to find a buyer willing to pay a fair
market price for the land. In a sense,
once the easement is signed, the owner
has just rendered his land worthless on
the open market.
 Conservation Easement deeds use broad
language that expands the trust’s control
but very specific language that limits the
landowner’s rights.

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When productive land is taken off the tax rolls,
a revenue shortage is created that has to be made up by
other tax payers, causing rate hikes in property taxes
and other tricks the government can come up with.
Some are more equal than others
All of the combined dangers from conservation
easements, and all of the combined powerful forces of
land trusts and governments seemed to land on the head
of one innocent, lovely lady named Martha Boneta. Her
story made national headlines last year and led to a
colossal battle in the Virginia state legislature – a battle
that continues to rage today without resolution.
In Fauquier County, Virginia, where Martha
(and I) reside, the chief “conservation” group is a
behemoth called the Piedmont Environmental Council
(PEC). They have managed to work there way into
every nook and cranny of the county, specifically in the
county government. PEC people have bored deeply into
the county development office and other country
agencies; they converge on farmers to pressure the
establishment of conservation easement, and they make
a ton of money from them. It’s good to be king.
In fact, PEC holds sway over nine Virginia
counties and they brag that they have succeeded in
“helping citizens protect nearly 350,000 acres” of land
with “voluntary conservation easements.” PEC calls it
one of the most dramatic private land conservation
successes in the nation. It is interesting to note that
those nine counties, in particular Fauquier County, are
the main center of the famous Virginia horse country
where, throughout Virginia history, the rich landed
gentry have had the pleasure of riding their horses
across vast open land in organized fox hunts. These
horsy people are rich and powerful with vast estates in
the country side. Many have contributed to the PEC
land conservation effort as a way to keep open space
available for their fox hunting pursuits.
It is also interesting to note the comments and
attitudes often expressed by these people concerning
new comers to the county. Say the horsy gentry, there
must be a way to curtail new people from coming into
the county and buying or developing property. That’s
because, they charge, these newcomers have no
understanding or respect for the age old tradition of
riding their horses over the land that now gets fenced in
or blocked by these unwanted intruders. How dare they
do that to their own land! The answer to their desire to
stop it – the PEC.
At a January, 2013 meeting of the Fauquier
County planning commission, it was revealed that
96,600 acres of county land is in conservation
easements (or 23% of the total land mass of the county).
A little research revealed an interesting detail. It seems
that, as the conservation easements are sold to the public
as a way to save the small family farm, in reality, of the
23% of the land, only 2% of it is actually small family
farms. The rest is basically the vast estates of the landed
gentry who have found a way to not only keep the land
open for their fox hunts – but to also reduce their
property taxes.
Last year, when I presented these statistics in a
talk in Richmond, Virginia, a member of the Piedmont
Environmental Council commented that he “never
thought he would hear a Conservative advocate class
warfare.” Actually, I was trying to prevent it.
Martha’s plight
Into this atmosphere, enter Martha Boneta. If
one were to write down all of the requirements as
expressed by the Greens for their idea of the perfect
small farmer, Martha Boneta would be their poster
child. Martha just wanted to farm. She loves it. And she
is very creative about it. It was her dream come-true
when she found the small farm in Paris, Virginia. It had
been on the market for at least six years. And so she was
able to purchase it at a very reduced price from the
Piedmont Environmental Council.
Everything was looking great for a lady anxious
to get her hands in the dirt. She is into organic farming –
just like the PEC advocates in their publications, web
site and bumper stickers – “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.”
Martha made the farm a haven for rescued animals. She
restored the heavily deteriorated barn and turned it into
a small farm store to sell her products – items produced
right there on the farm.
Oh yes, there was just one small detail brought
up at the very last minute during the closing meeting for
her mortgage loan as she was purchasing the property.
The Piedmont Environmental Council slipped in a
conservation easement on the property. This specific
easement did not pay any cash to Martha nor did it

provide any tax credits. All the benefits went to PEC.
Martha signed the document because she had been
told conservation easements were a way to protect
the farm from being developed. She was for that.
But there is one major aspect of Martha’s
value system that doesn’t fit the PEC profile for the
perfect small farmer. She believes in private property
rights. And that’s when the trouble started. Space
does not allow a full description of the battles
Martha has faced over her attempts to farm her land.
Here is the “Cliff notes” version:
Martha does not live on the farm, she owns a
home in another location. The conservation easement
she signed said she could have a small 1600 square
foot residence on the property. She never used the
facility as a residence.
The Fauquier County planning board
suddenly issued notice that Martha would be fined
for selling items that were not produced on her farm,
something she never actually did, and that she
needed another permit in order to use the facility for
events.
She was immediately threatened with fines of
$5000 for each violation brought by the County. The
evidence used against her by the county was a photo
of a children’s birthday party that Martha had posted
on her face book page, allegedly proving that she
had rented out the barn for a party. in fact, it was a
private party for friends. No money exchanged hands
for the facility. But the battle was on.
Martha began to learn what a powerful
weapon conservation easements can be in the hands
of those who wanted to control her actions. The
easement gave the PEC the right to occasionally
inspect the property for “violations’ of the easement.
Suddenly Martha was informed that PEC inspectors
would visit the farm to investigate the “living
quarters.” Rather than a random occasional or annual
visit, PEC came back again and again; demanding to
look into her private closets; even banning her right
to video tape the inspections on her own property.
The PEC found fault with a simple water
nozzle Martha had purchased to use in washing her
animals. Somehow that was a violation. There is an
old cemetery on the property dating back to 1832. In
it are buried the families of former residents of the
area and black slaves. To keep the farm animals
from walking though the cemetery, Martha installed
a simple fence. “Violation,” said PEC, “It damages
the view shed.” On and on went the harassment over
such idiotic claims. Along with it came thousands of
dollars of legal expenses as Martha fought to defend
herself.
Eventually, as a result of non-stop pressure
and the threat of fines from the County, plus the
pressure from PEC, Martha was forced to close her
farm store, seriously damaging a major part of her
ability to earn income from the farm.
What was her real crime? She had challenged
county planning restrictions. And in doing so, she had
become a threat to their authority and that of the PEC,
which is the driving force behind county controls over
private property.
Non-Governmental Control = Government
Corruption
Every American, especially farmers, should
learn this lesson from Martha’s story: conservation
easements, comprehensive planning, and controls
over private property, while always sold as a way to
help, are actually a Trojan Horse of corruption.
If there is a poster child in this story it is the
government of Fauquier County. Corruption begins
with the absolute influence and power unleashed by a
non-governmental organization like the Piedmont
Environmental Council. It is aided by an elite few
who seek to use government power for their own
personal gains. And it is enforced by a compliant
county Board of Supervisors that will use that power
as a weapon to crush anyone who dares stand up
against them.
Beware America! Unfortunately, Martha’s
story is not unique. Every community has its own
version of the Piedmont Environmental Council
calling the shots behind the scenes. Their very agenda
of power, and the corruption it brings, is now showing
itself in every local and state government – all under
the over-used and unsubstantiated excuses of
environmental protection and “local planning.”

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1 Response for “Conservation Easements and the Urge to Rule”

  1. Jeffrey Locke says:

    Agenda 21 is enslavement and death to liberty and freedom of the individual.
    This article describes it plainly. Please see the writing on the wall and take heed!!!

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