A bill in the Pennsylvania legislature has conservationists on high alert. House Bill 2224, some fear, will open the way to sale of public lands without the normal path through the courts. All they would have to do is declare the “parks, squares or similar uses and public buildings … no longer necessary or practicable.”
In 2008, voters in Adams County, at Pennsylvania’s southern border, voted in a three-to-one tally to authorize the county’s borrowing $10 million to protect the county’s water supplies. A portion of the money – about $4 million – was spent on Tree Farm Nr. One, a 2,500 parcel in the South Mountain foothills, to be donated to Michaux State Forest.
Much of the campaign seeking voter approval was centered on the parcel’s benefits as water protection – contrasted with a developer’s plan to cut it into five-acre house lots that would almost certainly demand a new multi-million water treatment plant. A bill currently before the state House of Representatives would seem poised to re-open such properties, thought to be preserved in perpetuity, to development – and the water-related expenses that go with it..
When Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Marcellus, ran for election, he promised the natural gas industry there would be no taxes on their production. Earlier this year, after a late night session with Republican legislators – to which Democrats were specifically not invited – he signed into law Act 13, which set a few painless standards for drilling and fracking for the gas, established an “impact fee” even the industry thought of little more consequence than a mosquito bite on a fracker’s arm, and rescinded municipal zoning authority that might have been used to prohibit drillers plying their trade, for instance, in or under residential developments.
A Commonwealth Court ruled in July municipalities do have zoning authority, but the state has appealed to the State Supreme Court and that ruling has yet to be made.
In January, Corbett fired DCNR Citizens Advisory Council Executive Director Kurt Leitholf. The department’s legislative liaison was appointed to become “advisor” to the civilian council.
Last week, John Norbeck, for the past six years the much-lauded director of the Commonwealth’s state park system, abruptly resigned. Paulette Viola, an ecology professor and 18-year volunteer member of the Citizens Advisory Council, also has resigned.
It’s as though the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is being turned into simply the Department of Resources.
Several months ago, a bill was wending its way through the legislature to allow fracking on state properties, such as colleges and hospitals.
And in May, House Bill 2224 was offered. It was approved in the House and sent to the Senate where,, after a third reading, it was amended last week and sent back to the House.
“The decision to sell our public lands will rest solely with municipal leaders,” said Mary Tracy, president of Scenic Philadelphia. “No longer will we have the oversight of the courts and the Attorney General, or even a right to challenge a local government’s actions.”
Ronnie Polaneczky, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist, told of a letter the bill’s introducer, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, wrote to fellow legislators.
“HB 2224,” Polaneczky quoted the lawmaker, “would make it easier for local governments to sell parks in a ‘challenging economy’ (which opponents have dubbed “cash for parks”). And it would remove a “stealth weapon” that opponents use to block development.”
During the recent presidential debate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney declared, “all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land.”
I don’t know where he looked. There are natural gas rigs clustered throughout Pennsylvania state forests across the northern part of the state. I have pictures of them. On the other hand, I’ve always thought of those forests as “public” land; Romney specifically termed them “government” land.
I realize Gov. Corbett is not running for president, but one might wonder whether his administration’s actions since taking office in 2011 portend sympathies in consonance with Gov. Romney’s.
House Bill 2224 bears watching, and the watchers should include anyone who has worked to preserve land anywhere in the state for future generations – not only from Marcellus development, which does not exist in southern Pennsylvania, but from retail, residential and any other industrial developments our local and state legislators might think more profitable than preserving “public” space in this “challenging economy.”
The old admonishment to invest in land because there’s no more being made is an increasingly evident truth. Public land has been purchased, owned and maintained by the taxpayers, and should not be sold off at the whim of political leaders with their eyes focused on short term financial goals rather than long term health of those who put them in office.
Photo by Ben Amstutz
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