Constitutional Amendment Would Protect State Lands

January 19, 2016

Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — A proposed amendment to the state constitution would make it much harder to sell, trade or give away land in state parks, forests or other protected areas.

The amendment being proposed by Sen. Kevin Witkos of Canton is designed to foil a traditional legislative maneuver to bury the sale or trade of state park property within a package of routine, noncontroversial state land transfers.

“This year, our work must focus on increasing protections for our environment, including protecting and preserving open space for today and for future generations,” Witkos, a Republican, said at a news conference at the Capitol last week.

Witkos said that repeated efforts several years ago to trade 17 acres of state land overlooking the Connecticut River in Haddam to a developer for 87 acres of less desirable forestland helped propel his proposed amendment.

The controversial deal became known as the “Haddam Land Swap” and did win legislative approval despite fierce opposition. The trade fell apart after appraisals showed that the 17 acres — originally purchased for $1.7 million in 2003 — was worth far more than the woodlands the developer wanted to trade.

There have been other proposed state parkland giveaways in recent years, including 8 acres of the state’s most popular park, Hammonasset Beach — to the town of Madison in 2013.

“The Haddam Land Swap was probably the major impetus behind the amendment,” said Witkos. He said that a former deputy environmental commissioner, David Leff, one of Witkos’ constituents, also urged him to push the amendment.

“Our parks and forests belong to all the people of Connecticut now and for all time,” Leff said at the news conference. “Only a constitutional amendment will ensure that these areas are passed on to our children.”

“I view this as a no-brainer,” Witkos added.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, agrees. Hammerling said his group has called for such an amendment in the past, and intends to make it “our top priority this year” in the General Assembly.

The proposed amendment, if approved by super-majorities in the House and Senate and by Connecticut voters in November’s election, would require that any proposed transfer of land in state parks, forests or protected agricultural or other open space land be voted on a separate “stand-alone” bill by lawmakers.
Hammerling said that would prevent such transfers from being hidden inside other legislation. “A number of bad proposals have slipped through in the past because they were packaged with some not-so-bad proposals,” Hammerling said.

The amendment would also demand that accurate appraisals be done for any such transfer or sale, and require approval by two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate for any transactions involving protected state lands.

If the House and Senate fail to approve the proposed amendment this year by two-thirds majorities, the proposal won’t be on the 2016 ballot but would be up for another General Assembly vote in 2017.

Does Connecticut need a constitutional amendment to protect state parks and lands?