I’m not as concerned as Ronnie Polaneczky about the threat HB2224 presents to municipal and county parks. Parks seem to be popular enough that the regular political process should be a sufficient check on politicians who might want to sell off too much park land to developers. I don’t think you really need the courts to intervene there. It probably should be up for political debate how much land a city or county wants to provide for recreation, and how much should be on the tax rolls. That’s a real political trade-off.
What I am really concerned about is the effect this bill would have on land conservation easements, which are a somewhat different issue:
But HB 2224, if passed, would remove the court’s oversight altogether, leaving decisions about alternative uses of countless parks to political leaders acting on their own discretion.
It would also affect conservation easements – including those acquired with public funds – and other deed restrictions on publicly owned lands. Again, without court oversight.
So why amend an act that has protected Pennsylvania public spaces for more than five decades?
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, who introduced HB 2224, told me the bill is meant to “clarify” language in the act that the state Supreme Court found vague when it reviewed a case involving an Erie golf course, which was sold to developers.
But its aim is more than that, as Cutler made clear in a January letter to colleagues. HB 2224, he wrote, 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.
This is important because conservation easements are the main tool we have for stopping more exurban sprawl. How it works it that counties buy easements for land they want to preserve – basically buying the development rights to farmland and such, and then not using them, and permanently protecting the land from development.
This is not my favorite way to control sprawl – something like a transferable development rights bank or even something more crude like an urban growth boundary is going to do a better job – but currently this is the most popular tool counties use, and court oversight is important for making these easement agreements stick.