Approved on December 18, 2013, Act 115 amends Pennsylvania’s Open Space Law (Act 442 of January 19, 1967, as amended), which authorizes the Commonwealth and its local government units to preserve, acquire or hold land for open space uses and provides for municipal referenda for dedicated open space taxes. The amendment provides greater flexibility and clarity to local municipalities in managing their open space programs.
Allows Some Revenue to be Used for Maintenance and Development
The amendment provides that in addition to acquiring land and easements, dedicated open space taxes may now be used to:
- Develop, improve, design, engineer and maintain open space acquired with dedicated open space taxes in order to provide open space benefits.* (Up to 25% of open space taxes may be used for this purpose.)
Prepare the resource, recreation or land use plan needed to acquire open space under the law.
The new flexibility to use a portion of the taxes for development and maintenance enables municipalities with well established open space protection programs to better steward their protected lands and and build trails and other recreational facilities that provide open space benefits. This flexibility may also encourage more municipalities to hold referenda to establish open space programs now that they know that they can use a portion of the revenue to care for and create recreational opportunities on the open space.
Brings Clarity Regarding Repeal
Act 115 also brings an important clarification to the Open Space Law. The law did not provide a mechanism for rescinding a dedicated open space tax if the tax is no longer needed or desired. Act 115 makes clear that repeal may only occur through voter referendum (rather than an up-down vote by township supervisors or other governing board). This is consistent with the principle that what is created by voter referendum should only be undone by voter referendum.
History of House Bill 1523
The Pennsylvania Senate voted 50-0 on 12/10/13 to pass House Bill 1523–what is now Act 115. The bill, sponsored by Montgomery County’s Marcy Toepel, passed the House 194-0 on 10/2/2013. The Governor signed the bill on 12/18/13.
The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association actively engaged in the development of the bill and supported its enactment.
Public Statements on Act 115 of 2013 (House Bill 1523)
Andy Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, stated that:
Open space programs will continue their great success if we ensure that the protected open spaces are well maintained and, as appropriate to the particular land, provide quality recreational opportunities. The amendment provides an important vehicle to accomplish this. It also ensures that open space programs can’t be undone without a vote by the citizens who created it.
Dulcie Flaharty, executive director of the Montgomery County Lands Trust and PALTA advisor stated that:
For many municipalities, who wisely enacted Open Space Funding programs through referendum, there has been an increasing realization that they must do more to responsibly steward their land and make these properties attractive to their citizens. HB 1523 will help communities thoughtfully manage their open lands for public benefit and encourage the ongoing preservation of strategic parcels.
* Open space benefits are defined by the law to be:
The benefits to the citizens of the Commonwealth and its local government units which result from the preservation or restriction of the use of selected predominantly undeveloped open spaces or areas, including but not limited to: (i) the protection and conservation of water resources and watersheds, by appropriate means, including but not limited to preserving the natural cover, preventing floods and soil erosion, protecting water quality and replenishing surface and ground water supplies; (ii) the protection and conservation of forests and land being used to produce timber crops; (iii) the protection and conservation of farmland; (iv) the protection of existing or planned park, recreation or conservation sites; (v) the protection and conservation of natural or scenic resources, including but not limited to soils, beaches, streams, flood plains, steep slopes or marshes; (vi) the protection of scenic areas for public visual enjoyment from public rights of way; (vii) the preservation of sites of historic, geologic or botanic interest; (viii) the promotion of sound, cohesive, and efficient land development by preserving open spaces between communities.