Advocates hope revised constitution change for land swaps makes 2018 ballot

March 2, 2018

Article as it appeared in the Record Journal

Conservationists hope that 2018 will finally be the year they get a vote on an amendment to the state constitution they say would create more public awareness of proposed swaps of state land.

They’ll need to convince three-fifths of lawmakers in each chamber to send the initiative to voters. In order to accomplish that goal, advocates for the bill have limited which parcels of state land would trigger the additional requirements for a public hearing. A similar effort in 2016 failed.

Each year the legislature votes on a bill addressing conveyances — trades, sales, or other ownership transfers — of state land. The proposed swaps are all included in one bill, which is typically among the last pieces of legislation to receive a vote.

Connecticut Forest & Parks Association Executive Director Eric Hammerling said that most of the swaps are acceptable, but the process is rife for controversial conveyances. Lawmakers who want to avoid scrutiny of a swap can wait until after a public hearing to add their transaction as an amendment — and some get included on the last day of session.

“We, and many other groups…are scrambling at the very end to say ‘wait a minute, this is a really bad idea for this, that, or the other reason,’” Hammerling said. “So we think there has to be a way to make sure there is a public vetting before public lands are given away.”

Hammerling pointed to the Haddam Land Swap as an example of why conveyances need more public scrutiny. The 2012 conveyance would have allowed a private developer to acquire 17 acres of land along the Connecticut River in exchange for 87 acres elsewhere.

That deal died amid public complaints that it was being done as a political favor. Hammerling and other advocates say the best way to prevent such proposals in the future is via a constitutional amendment that requires more publicity.

Conservationists had momentum on getting a statewide referendum on protections in 2018, getting a majority vote in 2016 on a resolution that would require a public hearing.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Kevin Witkos, who supports the amendment, said advocates had to abandon that proposal due to technical changes, forcing them to start over. 

If a resolution requires a simple majority of two consecutive legislators, the votes must occur on the exact same language. Witkos and Hammerling said proponents are scaling back the bill in hopes of reaching the super majority needed to get a statewide vote this year. 

The current iteration would only apply to what Hammerling called “lands of greatest interest to the public,” specifically those controlled by agencies like the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, as well a forest, park, and wildlife management lands. 

Witkos said he is still working with those who have been skeptical of efforts in the past, but he is optimistic a deal can be worked out.