Proposed constitutional amendment would protect state parks, forests

January 19, 2016

The Day

A first-of-its-kind effort has begun to amend the state Constitution to better ensure protection of state-owned forests, parks, farmland and other conservation lands.

“What we’ve seen is that properties we thought were preserved and protected forever may not necessarily be so,” state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said during a news conference last week announcing the initiative. A constitutional amendment to fix the problem, he said, is “long overdue.”

Witkos said he will sponsor a bill that will be introduced when the General Assembly convenes Feb. 3. State Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Art Linares, R-Westbrook, plan to co-sponsor the measure, which is being supported by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, the Friends of Connecticut State Parks and the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, among other groups.

Formica said Monday that after working as East Lyme’s first selectman to preserve open space in town, he understands that the public support for such proposals is put at risk whenever there’s a new proposal by a developer, town or other entity to purchase state conservation land or swap it for other properties.
“It makes sense that those promises are kept,” he said.

Witkos said he will introduce the bill in both the Environment and Government Administration & Elections committees. If approved by the legislature, the amendment would have to be voted on in a statewide ballot, potentially during the November election.

Over the past few years, at least four proposals have been considered by the state Legislature to sell or swap state-owned lands. While most have been thwarted by opposition to the plans, proponents say the threat remains that more proposals will be made in the future. They argue that some of the proposals were tacked onto larger bills or nearly adopted in late-night negotiations, and could have passed had it not been for the attentiveness of opponents. One of the failed proposals that generated the most controversy involved a swap of 17 acres of state-owned land in Haddam on the Connecticut River for 87 acres of forest elsewhere in town in 2012. One of the recent successful “land grabs,” used by amendment supporters to illustrate why it’s needed was the 2012 transfer of eight acres at Hammonasset Beach State Park to the town of Madison.

“Our parks, forests and natural areas belong to all the people of Connecticut for all times, and we have a sacred duty to be good stewards and pass these places on the people who come after us,” David Leff, chairman of the forest & park association’s Public Policy Committee, said during the news conference. He is also the former deputy commissioner of the agency formerly known as the state Department of Environmental Protection, now the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Leff cited a 2014 report by the state Council on Environmental Quality, “Preserved But Maybe Not,” that called for the need for a constitutional amendment to protect state land. In the report, the council notes that the recent proposals for land swaps have “highlighted the weaknesses in protections granted to Connecticut’s conservation lands” that could result in “sudden unpreservation and subsequent development of those lands.”

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the forest & park association, said his group crafted the proposed amendment, after reviewing similar Constitutional amendments on the books in Maine, Massachusetts and New York. The proposed amendment is written so that it does not entirely foreclose on the possibility of a sale of swap of conservation land if a parcel of greater or equal value to the public replaces it, but only after an open public process, he said.

The proposal states:

• There must be a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature in favor of selling the open space, rather than a simple majority.

• The proposal must be made in a standalone bill to prevent it being incorporated into a larger conveyance or implementer bill and potentially getting rushed through.

• All money from the transfer or sale must be used only to replace with similar open space land.
Pam Adams of Colchester, president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said the amendment will provide the kind of assurances would-be land donors need that the land they give to the state will be preserved in perpetuity.

“It defies the public trust in the state when it took these properties that a transfer could happen,” she said Monday.

In addition, she said, having to fight against new efforts to take state lands takes time and resources away from volunteer groups like hers that could be better spent on other projects.

Getting the amendment approved will be one of her group’s key initiatives for the upcoming legislative session, she said. The 6,000 statewide members of the friends groups are being asked to contact their legislators and urge them to support the bill, Adams said.

“Our goal is to get the word out and really push our legislators hard to support this,” she said. “This is something positive we can do for the state of Connecticut that doesn’t cost anything.”