It is not an overstatement to say that most Connecticut residents believe that land designated as state parks and forests is protected from sale or development now and in the future.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Every spring, the General Assembly considers the so-called “conveyance bill,” a piece of legislation that uses the phrase, “notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes,” at the beginning of each section to override all existing laws that might protect public lands. The purpose of each conveyance bill is to give away, trade or sell state properties to municipalities or even to individual developers.
By its very nature, the conveyance bill is obscure, and unless flagged by concerned legislators or activists, can pass unnoticed. It is only through the hard work of concerned lawmakers and conservation advocates, who make enough noise to garner public scrutiny and let lawmakers know that the worst land giveaways need to be stopped.
The controversial 2011 legislation that authorized the state to swap 17 acres of prime land overlooking the Connecticut River in Haddam for 87 wooded acres owned by a developer in town is one of the most publicized examples of how this practice can undermine the public trust.
The deed for the riverfront land, which had been acquired by the state in 2003, specifically stated that it should be used for a park or scenic overlook. Yet the land swap was included in a conveyance bill, and state officials testified at a public hearing on the bill that the provisions in the deed were not binding. While the conveyance bill was approved by the legislature, the land swap itself fell through only after the developer declined to pay the difference in value between the two properties.
In spite of that controversy, the annual conveyance process continues. In this year’s proposed conveyance bill, H.B. 5619, the state would transfer more than 66 acres of land in Groton to the town for free and for unspecified economic development uses. With a finite number of acres available for giveaway or sale, this could continue until there are few state parks or forests left in Connecticut.
The best and only way to stop this giveaway of a precious resource is with a constitutional amendment that better protects public lands. There is a proposal now under consideration by the General Assembly, and nearby states – Massachusetts, New York, and Maine – already have constitutional protections in place for their public lands.
A constitutional amendment would better protect the state’s parks and forests from being sold, traded or given away by requiring public input at critical stages. It could ultimately allow conveyance of some lands, but it would set higher standards for approval, including consideration in separate pieces of state legislation, a locally public hearing, a two-thirds vote of the state House and Senate to approve, and ensuring that any state lands lost by conveyance would be replaced by lands of equal or greater value.
The primary objection to a constitutional amendment has been that it might be inconvenient for state agencies involved in non-controversial transactions, and the bill should focus only on the legislature. That’s a fair criticism, considering most of the abuses in the Conveyance Acts have been initiated by legislators.
Indeed, extra protections would slow the process, as is their intent. The additional scrutiny can prevent conveyances that don’t truly serve the public good while allowing those that do. Constitutional amendments have not paralyzed our neighboring states, and they will not paralyze government functions here.
Today there are 135 state parks and forests in Connecticut – one within a 15-minute drive of every resident of our state. If additional public involvement makes it more difficult to convey away these precious natural resources, then it is more likely they will be preserved for our children and our grandchildren. That outcome is certainly worth fighting for.
Eric Hammerling is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.