There has been much ado in Pennsylvania recently over a bill in the General Assembly, characterized by supporters as a mild-mannered attempt to make it easier for municipalities to sell unused land — and by opponents as a gutting of the rights of citizens to protect their parks. At the crux of the issue is the elimination of a requirement that the sale of public land be first approved by an Orphan’s Court. The bill in question, HB 2224, allows municipalities to bypass the court if land was purchased (not donated) and is unencumbered by deed restrictions or convenants. The bill passed the state House last May with unanimity. So low was its profile that the groups now opposing it — a gaggle of parks groups, conservationists and hunting clubs — missed the affair entirely.
“What happened was no one who was looking out for the parks’ interest or conservation was consulted anywhere,” says Andrew Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association. Loza argues that many city parks don’t meet the narrow criteria of protection under HB 2224, based on how they were acquired. “I submit to you that people don’t care about the deep history of their parks, whether they were acquired by purchase or condemnation — they care about whether they’re enjoying and using them. And that’s what the law, until now, recognized.” The backlash appears to have caught some House members by surprise. State Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) says she was assured by the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bryan Cutler, that the bill was harmless. “I now believe the bill may be written wrong,” Harper says.
Cutler, for his part, says the bill’s intent wasn’t to undermine protections for parks, and he has worked with the state Senate to make amendments. But those changes aren’t enough, say conservationists like the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, which issued a statement that the bill “still puts acres of Pennsylvania’s parks, open spaces, trails and other public lands at risk.” The bill hadn’t passed as of press time, but faced a possible vote on Wednesday.