Great article from Kevin Mooney, a very talented investigative journalist, on how nonprofit land trusts manipulate land value. If there’s something similar happening in your neck of the woods, please leave a reference in the Comments section. We’re sure this racketeering isn’t limited to Virginia.
No historical evidence locates Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on what is now Liberty Farm in Fauquier County, Virginia, on the evening of July 18, 1861, three days before the First Battle of Bull Run.
So why would a prestigious state preservation group represent that as a fact?
The current owner of the farm, Martha Boneta, has sued the Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit land trust, accusing the organization of knowingly making a false historical claim when selling her the property.
The environmental council, Boneta claims in the lawsuit, told her the celebrated Civil War general bivouacked on the open fields surrounding the farm.
Liberty Farm, also known as Paris Farm, is located about an hour’s drive outside Washington, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the rural village of Paris. Boneta purchased the property in 2006, 145 years after Jackson’s supposed overnight stay.
While negotiating the real estate transaction with Boneta, according to her suit in Fauquier County Circuit Court, the environmental council presented her with a document describing Jackson’s movements and coordinates in July 1861.
After a “strenuous march” from Winchester, Virginia, Jackson and his men spent the night nearby, according to the deed detailing terms of the conservation easement that was part of the environmental council’s sale of the property to Boneta.
The next day, July 19, Jackson resumed his march to what was then Piedmont Station and is now Delaplane, the environmental council’s document explains. From there, it says, Jackson and his troops boarded a train on their way to what would be called the First Battle of Bull Run.
Also known as the Battle of First Manassas, Bull Run was where Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall.”
The “Oak Grove” situated on the high point of the property “is recognized as the heart of the bivouac of General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s men on the evening of July 18, 1861 … ,” the document says.
But here’s the problem: Even a general as nimble and agile as Jackson could not be in two places at the same time.
Historians believe he camped in the vicinity, but don’t agree on where. One historian, in an email to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, insists Jackson did not overnight on the land that is now Liberty Farm.
Jackson, who served under Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a decisive factor in significant Civil War battles until he was fatally wounded by friendly fire at age 39 during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, as History.com notes.
Boneta’s lawsuit against the Piedmont Environmental Council, filed in May, argues that the organization’s linking of Jackson to her property was not just a mistake but a deliberate act of fraud.
“Stonewall Jackson did not bivouac on Paris Farm on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run,” Boneta’s suit says, adding:
PEC knew, in negotiating with Ms. Boneta for the sale of the Paris Farm, that its representation regarding Stonewall Jackson bivouacking on the Paris Farm prior to the First Battle of Bull Run was false. PEC’s knowledge of the falsity of its claim regarding Stonewall Jackson bivouacking on Paris Farm is demonstrated by the fact that PEC claimed that another one of its properties was the scene of Stonewall Jackson’s famous night watch.
The false historical designation, the suit claims, greatly inflated the purchase price of the property beyond its actual value and restricted Boneta from accessing roughly 18 acres for agricultural operations.
The dispute over Stonewall Jackson’s whereabouts that day in 1861 is the latest wrinkle in a long, complicated dispute between Boneta and the Piedmont Environmental Council that reaches back to 2009. That’s when Boneta first filed suit against the land trust, accusing it of violating the terms and conditions of the conservation easement.
Boneta purchased the 64-acre property for $425,000 on July 31, 2006. Without the historical designation involving the Civil War general, the property actually was worth $100,000—the value the environmental council listed in 2005 tax filings, according to the suit.
“PEC’s knowing, false representations to Ms. Boneta were made in order to obtain more money from Ms. Boneta for Paris Farm than she would otherwise have paid for it and more money from Ms. Boneta than Paris Farm was worth at the time,” the suit alleges.
‘Green Robber Barons’
The environmental council’s willingness to invoke what turns out to be dubious history as a way to restrict Boneta’s farming operations points to the disproportionate influence green groups have acquired across the country, an energy policy analyst who has followed the story closely told The Daily Signal.
“Under the guise of practicing conservation, land trusts—operating with little, if any, oversight—are becoming states within a state,” said Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, adding:
Lording over millions of acres throughout the U.S., they have learned that they can harass property owners and force them into prohibitively expensive litigation with impunity. By claiming—in the absence of any evidence—that Martha Boneta’s farm was of particular historical significance, the PEC could both limit her ability to use her land and line their pockets by jacking up the sales price of the property they sold her. We’re living in an age of green robber barons.
In November 2014, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds the easement with the Piedmont Environmental Council, “indicated that there was no accurate historical evidence in support of the PEC’s claim,” according to the suit.
In response to requests from The Daily Signal under the Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation released email recordsdetailing the role it played in obtaining historical information that raised questions about Jackson’s precise location on July 18, 1861.
Reached by telephone, a spokeswoman for the Piedmont Environmental Council told The Daily Signal that the land trust “disputes the claims” in Boneta’s suit but “cannot comment further” on ongoing litigation.
Jason McGarvey, spokesman for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, told The Daily Signal that his agency had done its own research before hearing from the local historian who disputed the claim that Jackson camped on what is now Boneta’s property.
“We had already determined that the documentation supporting the restrictions in the deed did not meet our standards for stewardship,” McGarvey said in a June 17 email.
Matthew Vadum, senior vice president of the Capital Research Center, which studies politically oriented nonprofits, describes the Piedmont Environmental Council as a “well-heeled activist group” that is well positioned to wage legal battles. Indeed, from 2005 through 2014, the land trust pulled in $55.4 million in donations and other revenue, according to publicly available tax filings.
Notable backers include left-leaning philanthropies such as the Tides Foundation ($155,000 since 2000) and the Surdna Foundation ($150,000 since 2002), as well as environmental donors such as the Agua Fund ($1.8 million since 2003) and the Mars Foundation ($500,000 since 2004).
Boneta’s suit says she fenced about 18 acres of her property in response to the environmental council’s historical claim. Erecting, maintaining, and removing the fencing cost about $18,000, the suit says.
Boneta also spent thousands of dollars to trademark the name Liberty Farm with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so her property could be marked for guided historical tours.
Her suit calls for the environmental council to be charged with fraud and breach of contract. She asks for no less than $325,000 in compensatory damages to cover what she considers an inflated sale price and her loss of the use of her property,
Cohen, the energy policy analyst, said he sees a financial motivation behind the environmental council’s tactics.
“By boasting about all the land it has ‘saved,’ including the Stonewall Jackson fabrication,” he told The Daily Signal, “the PEC can receive millions of dollars in government grants and it can hustle donors to write even bigger checks to the green money machine.”