Government Administration and Elections Committee
JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT
RESOLUTION APPROVING AN AMENDMENT TO THE STATE CONSTITUTION TO PROTECT REAL PROPERTY HELD OR CONTROLLED BY THE STATE.
SPONSORS OF BILL:
Government Administration and Elections Committee on behalf of Secretary of State, Merrill
Sen. Kevin Witkos, 8th Dist.
Rep. Joseph P. Gresko, 121st Dist.
Rep. Devin R. Carney, 23rd Dist.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, 143rd Dist.
Sen. Len Suizo, 13th Dist.
Rep. Melissa H. Ziobron, 34th Dist.
Sen. Paul M. Formica, 20th Dist.
Rep. Christies M. Carpino, 32nd Dist.
Sen. Gary A. Winfield, 10th Dist.
Rep. Bill Simanski, 62nd Dist.
Sen. Toni Boucher, 26th Dist.
Rep. Michael Ferguson, 138th Dist.
Rep. Patrick S. Boyd, 50th Dist.
Rep. Lonnie Reed, 102nd Dist.
Sen. Catherine A. Osten, 9th Dist.
Rep. Terrie Reed, 141st Dist.
Sen. Steve Cassano, 4th Dist.
Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, 31st Dist.
Rep. Robin Green, 55th Dist.
REASONS FOR BILL:
The resolution would provide the citizens of Connecticut an opportunity to amend the state constitution to protect public lands. There is a concern that the current conveyance process may not adequately give the public time to debate or adequately scrutinize the proposed sale or transfer of public lands that was set aside for open space, conservation or other public uses. And that the process may be better scrutinized though a more rigorous process than is currently set forth.
It would prohibit the selling of open space unless a 2/3 vote by each chamber was made in favor of selling the space. Additionally, any legislation allowing for the sale of an open space property must be a standalone bill. And all money received for any transfer, sale or conversion of land must be used only to replace that land with similar land to be used for open spaces, parks, forests or farms.
The resolution was approved by a majority, but less than three-fourths, of the total membership of each house during the 2016 session of the General Assembly and is being returned for consideration by the 2017 session of the General Assembly in accordance with Article Sixth of the Amendments to the Constitution of the State of Connecticut.
RESPONSE FROM ADMINISTRATION/AGENCY:
Robert J. Klee, Commissioner, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)
The DEEP supports the resolution because it may ensure that public lands that are acquired for public use and benefit are protected. One role of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is to acquire conservation and recreation lands for the public benefit. The Department has a long history of receiving land from the State. Recreational lands help to improve the quality of life of the State's residents by providing recreational and other outdoor activities. The acquisition of conservation also helps to support and protect open space, air and water quality and the wildlife population. Additionally, lands of special value will be protected against sale and can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.
NATURE AND SOURCES OF SUPPORT:
Kevin D. Witkos, State Senator, Eighth District
The Senator strongly urges the committee to continue to protect Connecticut's parks, forests, and other state owned conservation, recreational and agricultural lands from being sold, traded or given away by a legislative act. A constitutional amendment would ensure that these lands are protected for the benefit of future generations.
Senate Joint Resolution 39 prohibits the state from selling open space unless three requirements are met. First, there must be a 2/3 vote by each chamber in support of selling the space. Additionally, any legislation that allows for the sale of an open space property must be a standalone bill, not incorporated into a larger conveyance or implementer bill. Finally, all money received for any transfer, sale or conversion of land must be used to help preserve the amount of open space currently owned by the state by replacing it with other similar land such as open space, parks, forests or farms.
The Senator urges that we move to protect lands being sold without proper public input and discussion and assessment of the sale of lands. He cites the Haddam land swap and the Silver Sands situation in Milford as examples of situations that could have been better scrutinized and may have challenged the public's trust in government.
Joseph P. Gresko, State Representative, One Hundred Twenty-First Assembly District
Representative Gresko states that the Connecticut state parks and other public lands help to improve the quality of life and the economy. Our neighbors to the north, Maine and Massachusetts have an amendment to their state constitutions to protect public lands and he urges that we give Connecticut voters the opportunity to weigh in on the issue. One example of how the Connecticut economy benefits is that state parks and forests bring in 8 million visitors, generates over $1 billion dollars and supports over 9,000 jobs every year.
Lori Brown, Executive Director, Connecticut League of Conservation Voters
When considering if the sale of public land or giving away of state public parks and lands is in the public's best interest, public hearings should be held. Additionally, there should be overwhelming support by legislators in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Ms. Brown is concerned about the current process of how Connecticut disposes of public land through the annual Conveyance bill. She asserts that the process has been increasingly abused to bypass any reasonable review of the land being sold. As a result, some transfers of land do not meet even a minimum assessment of the land's significance.
Donald S. Stein, First Selectman, Town of Barkhamsted and Member, Connecticut Council of Small Towns Board of Directors
Mr. Stein asserts that it is imperative to preserve Connecticut's natural habitats and the scenic beauty of our communities. Barkhamsted depends upon the tourist revenue that the Peoples State Forest, American Legion State Forest, Tunxis State Forest and Enders State forest (25% of the towns land) bring to the town. Additionally, the campground on the Farmington River and State Forests are very popular with trout fisherman. The town will lose 1/3 of its season this year due to budget cuts. Mr. Stein urges that the state constitution be amended to provide stronger protections for properties held or controlled by the state.
Toby Welles, Acting Chairman, Redding Planning Commission
The Redding Planning Commission states that it feels strongly about preserving public lands in perpetuity. State parks are visited by millions of people and help to generate multi-millions of dollars that help reduce our deficit. The Commission suggests that before the State abandons any of these public assets, that a public hearing should be held.
David Sargent, President, North Branford Land Conservation Trust, Inc.
The North Branford Land Conservation Trust members strongly urge that the citizens of Connecticut be given the opportunity to vote on amending the state constitution. Public lands are invaluable to the state's economy and an economical investment. The state's open spaces produce more tax dollars (directly and indirectly) than they consume in services. And provide residents with a source of mental and physical wellbeing.
John C. Hall, Executive Director, The Jonah Center for Earth and Art
Mr. Hall writes on behalf of the board of directors are aware of several occasions when the State of Connecticut has transferred parcels of public land to private entities without an opportunity for the public to comment, and sometimes without public knowledge. They argue that open space conservation is one of the single most important measures that can be taken to protect the environment.
The Jonah Center states that a more public process for selling, swapping or giving away public lands is necessary in order to honor land donors, preserve benefits, protect valuable assets, secure state investments and provide, affordable public lands for everyone to enjoy.
Melissa Schlag, former Executive Director of Citizens for the Protection of Public Lands
Ms. Schlag supports the constitutional amendment because it will ensure that public lands will not be swapped, sold or given to another party without sufficient scrutiny, transparency, public debate and approval by a 2/3 vote in both chambers of the General Assembly. She reminds the committee of the Citizens for the Protection of Public Lands efforts against the Haddam Land Swap in which they learned there are no deed restrictions to protect public open space from being sold, swapped or given away. The resolution will help to protect our natural resources and land which is precious and limited.
Martin Mador, Legislative Chair, The Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club
Mr. Mador asserts that since 1988, not a single conveyance bill which included DEEP or other open space properties started in the Environment Committee. He recalled an instance in 2011, where the Sierra Club tried unsuccessfully to make a case for the open space value of 17 acres in Haddam. He believes that the hearing in Hartford, in which numerous other conveyance matters were considered, was not sufficient enough to fully vet a matter of public interest. The public must have confidence that a proposed transfer of land has been sufficiently vetted and is in the public interest.
Genese Leach, Policy Manager, Audubon Connecticut
Audubon Connecticut strongly supports the Resolution which would protect public lands when a land swap is being considered as it would create a transparent process between the public and state government. The group recommends the publication of maps depicting state lands being proposed for sale, transfer and/or give away; and an Environmental Review of the proposed properties. They believe that without such descriptions and maps, it is often difficult to assess the ecological effects.
The believe Connecticut should adopt a legal framework to protect public lands as our neighboring states (Massachusetts, New York and Maine). The Constitutional Amendment would also help to restore the confidence of the public that the state is preserving and protecting public lands.
Wendolyn Hill, Open Space Coordinator, Town of Lyme
The citizens of the Town of Lyme in a 2015 survey supported the protection of open space for recreation, improved quality of life, the protection of wildlife. The state lands in Lyme and the region, including the Nehantic State Forest and Gillette Castle State Park, also attract visitors and provide an important source of revenue.
Peter A. Raymond, President, Branford Land Trust
In 1969, the General Assembly declared that it is public policy of the State of Connecticut to preserve areas of land and water of outstanding value in their natural state. Connecticut created a system of natural preserves to implement the policy and continues to protect and preserve natural areas through the State Plan of Conservation and Development.
Often through the conveyance bill, or other proposed legislation, there is a high value open space parcel conveyed to another party or for use by a State agency that could permanently destroy or jeopardize the natural values of land. While often citizens and non-profit organizations intervene and help to speak out against such measures, Mr. Raymond contends that that a safeguard system that requires the vigilance and action of citizens is vulnerable and a stronger mechanism is required. The system should provide the public with adequate and clear notice, and allow for the public participation in the evaluation process and require approval of more than a simple majority of legislators.
The State should adopt the Resolution and give Connecticut citizens an opportunity to decide if Connecticut's constitution should be changed as New York, Massachusetts and Maine already have. In some cases, Connecticut taxpayers have paid for the purchase of these properties. Future generations will benefit from keeping the natural open space as it is.
Friends of Sherwood Island State Park
Friends of Sherwood Island State Park, and those before them, fought for protection of the shoreline property through the creation of a state park. They urge for the passage of the Resolution so that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy the beaches, wooded areas and fragile marsh lands at Sherwood Island in Westport. State parks provide a great economic value, bring tourists to the region and support both public and private sector jobs. The shoreline parks offer important recreation space when so much of the state shoreline is closed to the public.
Tom Odell, Board Chairman, Connecticut River Coastal Conservation District, Inc. (CRCCD)
Mr. Odell asserts that SJ 39 will help protect the State's water resources by ensuring a public hearing will be held prior to lands being dispose of by the state. Additionally, municipalities will be given an opportunity to testify at a public hearing before sale, transfer or disposition of state owned public lands that may affect a town economically or its environmental well-being. Finally, SJ 39 will ensure that a public hearing will be held to allow Connecticut residents to continue to “look forward to” the view (in reference to the conservationist Rachel Carson's question, “What would you do if you knew you would never see it again?”).
Allen G. Herkimer, III, Natural Resource Manager, Dark Entry Forest, Incorporated (DEF)
Dark Entry Forest's forested land protects headwater streams, wetlands and recharge areas that are critical for maintaining water quality. Along with Wyantenock State Forest, the lands provide critical ecosystem services, including a healthy biodiversity of fauna and flora through habitat protection and unfragmented land masses, carbon sequestration, recreation and research opportunities. Mr. Herkimer asserts that due to climate change, we are now learning that we must preserve lands for resilience: lands that are diverse both above and below ground and connected to other protected lands.
If the Wyantenock State Forest were ever affected by the state selling, swapping or repurposing of the land, Dark Entry Forest, Inc. and its members would like an opportunity to testify at a public hearing or provide public comments to demonstrate how the transaction would have a negative impact on both human and ecological health.
Theodore B. Lynn, Ph.D, President, West Rock Ridge Park Association
Public lands are a valuable and irreplaceable asset that must be protected for future generations. In recent years, it has become too easy for public lands to be sold off with little or no public comment. Often the impact is that a sensitive ecosystem or public recreation area would be lost to the public without an equally valuable substitute.
Dr. Lynn asserts that with the pressures of balancing the state budget, it may be tempting to sell off public lands for cash value. The Association believe the constitutional amendment would provide more protections for public lands and ensure that any transfers would receive a public hearing and adequate legislative review.
The economic value of public lands like State Parks is significant. An economic study by UConn demonstrated that State Parks brings in over $1 billion in revenues and support over 9,000 private sector jobs each year.
Ralph Scarpino, President of Friends of American Legion and Peoples State Forests, Barkhamstead
Protecting public lands is the solemn responsibility of government. Many public lands have been donated or sold to the state with the understanding that it will be held in perpetuity for all citizens to enjoy and utilize.
Additionally, State Forests, Parks and Wildlife Management areas are enjoyed and utilized by over 8 million people per year. Citizens rely on the land for a variety of recreation activities and others rely on public ownership for providing a supply of forest products (firewood, woodchips, pulp and logs). Economic studies demonstrate that recreation in state parks generate over $1 billion in revenues and support over 9,000 jobs. It is imperative that there is adequate time for public comment should any changes be proposed for the property in the town in which the property lies.
Alan J. Siniscalchi, President, Connecticut Association of Conservation and Inland Wildlife Commissions, Inc.
The Association has noted that despite efforts to identify, index and preserve critical habitats within their member conservation municipalities, many important parcels of lands have become more fragmented over time. This has resulted in fewer large regional forest parcels and greenways, which decreases their value in sustaining habitats for various wildlife species. Many Connecticut year round resident and migratory species are impacted by the loss of both of these unique parcels and important forest tracks.
The organization asserts that the conveyance proposed is often without consideration of the true conservation value of the targeted parcels. Property transfers by the acts do not require state or local public hearings and conservation and environmental organizations may not have an opportunity to comment.
Additionally, CACIWC has been a supporter of reclassification of lands for tax assessment purposes under P.A. 490. They contend that DEEP is already burdened and it can be avoided with the protection of a constitutional amendment.
Finally, they assert that monies from the transfers of land should be set aside in a dedicated “lock-box” fund for use in purchasing other lands within the region that have similar value for conservation or passive recreation use.
Peter R. Knight, Environmental lawyer and Board Member, Connecticut Forest and Park Association
Connecticut's parks and forests are our greatest resource in which many residents get opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. The trails in our state are a rate and wonderful resource. Additionally, our mix of coastal and inland assets improves the quality of life for Connecticut residents. Mr. Knight fears that the conveyance act, as it is currently implemented, may erode and jeopardize our public lands. Joint Resolution 39 would assure that the conveyance act is restrained and the public would have an opportunity to be heard, fair compensation received and more than a simple majority vote be required prior to a conveyance being made.
Philip Keyes, Executive Director, New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA)
NEMBA's mission is to promote sustainable and socially responsible mountain biking, to steward the public open spaces and to preserve open space for recreation. They feel at minimum, a process of public input should be required whenever there is a proposal to sell, swap or give away public lands. Each year, NEMBA, along with other organizations donate thousands of dollars and hours to the public trail system. In addition to the 350,000 people who ride mountain bikes in Connecticut, there are 1.6+ million people who mountain bike in New England. NEMBA puts on recreational mountain bike events that bring into Connecticut riders from all over the region and contributes to the local and state economy.
Eileen Grant, Friends of CT State Parks Board of Directors
The conservation and recreation lands in Connecticut have been acquired through the work of many, including taxpayers that presumed these public lands would be preserved for all future generations. Some properties have been accrued through donations from private citizens, land trust or philanthropic organizations and foundations; some have been sold to the State at bargain prices with the understanding that they be used in very specific ways in perpetuity.
Other lands have been purchased with tax dollars by the State and its agencies (DEEP and Department of Agriculture). Determining the “best” choices for state land purchase has been no casual manner for agencies as resources have been limited for years.
Ms. Grant asserts that the misuse of the Land Conveyance Act to take possession of protected state conservation properties for parochial purposes both shatters public trust and squanders the hard work done by a multitude from both the private and government sectors; further precious resources are needlessly wasted by environmental advocates and department staff, in efforts to fore-stall destructive land grab proposals.
Additionally, State Park and Forest System land have been targeted for sale, transfer or giveaway. Any proposed divestiture of these lands should be approached with caution and be put forth in a separate and distinct bill that would have its own public hearing and approved in the separate chambers by a 2/3 vote.
Stephen Zakur, Director, Citizens for Public Commons
As a land trust, the Citizens for Public Commons see firsthand the importance and social, economic and ecological benefits of protecting open space in the community. They urge the passage of the resolution and giving the citizens a voice in deciding what should happen with public lands.
Jeff Cordulack, Executive Director and Bill Duesing, Organic Advocate, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CT NOFA)
CT NOFA urges a constitutional amendment to protect valuable open space, farm and park lands for the benefit of Connecticut citizens and the environment. They believe that the requirement of a public hearing and very specific majority support for any transfer or sale of state owned real property is owed to present and future generations of Connecticut residents.
The committee received testimony from 39 citizens who supported the bill. They stated that public lands have an immense value to the state and should be protected. Eight to nine million people every year visit state parks and an economic study by UConn demonstrated that state parks generate over one billion in revenues and 9,000 private sector jobs.
Additionally, SJ39 would allow the citizens of Connecticut to vote on amending the state constitution to better protect and preserve the parks, forests, reserves and other open lands in Connecticut. There is a need for a constitutional amendment because lands in state ownership with conservation value have been the legislative subjects of conveyance bills with no transparency. SJ 39 ensures sufficient scrutiny, transparency, public debate and approval by a two-thirds vote in both chambers. It is important to ensure that the public's voice is heard BEFORE our public lands are swapped, sold or given away without any consideration of the values being lost.
Maine, Massachusetts and New York already have provisions in their state constitutions to protect public lands and Connecticut should too.
Missy Stevens, Sarah Shrewsbury, Claire Runyan, Paula Rose, William H. Marshall II, Eliza Little, Lynn S. Kochiss, Karen A. Huber, Dominick Galletti, Thomas J. Degnan, Jr; Laurie Gorham, Dr. Nan Zyla, Toby Young, Janet P. Brooks, Chris and Kelly Callahan, Barbara and Richard Carman, G. Clifford Carter, Ruth Cutler, Ingrid S. Davis, Christopher and Kathleen Demers, John Folsom, Stephanie Gatto, William Gemmell MD, Diane Grasso, John E. Hibbard, Kevin Gough and Paula Jones, Ben Hull III, Julie Hulten, Nancy Hutchinson, Mary Ann Kulla, Joseph P. Lewerk, Lisa Newell, Kathleen Powers, Paul Sanderson, Cynthia C. Willauer, Brian Stewart, Eric Lukingbeal, Thomas Tella, David K. Leff:
The following people also support the bill: Susannah Wood, Ethan S. Weiner, Jeff Vennell, John Triana, Sue Therrien, Jeffrey Simmons, Paul Sanderson, Barrett S. Robbins-Pianka, Peter A. Raymond, Eugene Ralph, Robbie Marshall, Gary Lussier, Diane Edwards and Cynthia Quintanal.
NATURE AND SOURCES OF OPPOSITION:
Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh: A constitutional amendment would guarantee that local control of land within a municipality, owned by the state is completely eliminated.
Michael J. Gaffey: A moratorium is needed on open space purchases until our fiscal house is in order.
Reported by: Maureen O'Reilly
Date: March 31, 2017