House Bill 2468, which the Pennsylvania House of Representatives may amend today (Monday, 6/18) and vote on tomorrow, requires court approval of conservation easement condemnations. The heart of the bill reads:
The orphans’ court shall review the proposed condemnation and approve the proposed condemnation only if the court determines there is no reasonable and prudent alternative to the utilization of the land subject to a conservation easement for the project.
Please contact your state representative(s) immediately, and ask them to (1) vote for HB 2468 and (2) oppose any amendment that would weaken the bill’s protection of conservation easements.
Play by the Rules
Nothing is totally safe from government use of eminent domain—not state-owned game lands, not factories, not national parks, not land trust-held easements, not anything. However, government (including school districts) must be responsible in its use of eminent domain; it must follow the rules. Those rules include following the constitution. The legislation upholds the first sentence of Article 1,* Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.
A conservation easement accomplishes such preservation, and the legislation ensures that the government does not act heedless of the people’s right to this preservation. Since environmental rights don’t exist in a vacuum, the legislation only requires that before exercising eminent domain on a conservation easement, the condemner look for reasonable and prudent alternatives.
Twice in 2018 (and never before in anyone’s memory) school districts have threatened conservation easements:
- In the case of the McCormick Farm, it’s clear that the district didn’t expend any effort considering the conservation impact or looking for alternatives. In fact, it appears that the district thought it could somehow get away on the cheap by taking conserved land. (Read PALTA’s letter to the school district.) The district’s taking of the farm and conservation easement is now in litigation.
- In the case of Stoneleigh, the school district is still in the exploratory stage, not having made a decision to condemn or not, but the public is in an uproar over a potential taking of this beautiful open space generously and expressly donated by the Haas family for the enjoyment of all generations. (See http://www.savestoneleigh.org/)
School districts (and other units of government) should look for prudent alternatives before jumping to take conserved lands, upending the expectations of community members that their beloved special places are there for the long run, and incurring unnecessary legal expenses.
For those concerned about Stoneleigh in particular, this bill must pass through the House and Senate (without noxious amendments) before June’s end to ensure it receives this safeguard before a potential school board vote to condemn and before the legislature leaves for the summer.
HB 2468 would establish a level of review for conservation easement condemnations analogous to that provided by the Agricultural Lands Condemnation Approval Board (ALCAB) for lands in Agricultural Security Areas.
HB 2468 was reported out of the House Local Government Committee on June 12 with a unanimous (27-0), bipartisan vote.
Conservation easements are especially important to developing parts of the state where they serve to protect—in full cooperation with private landowners—open lands that people love even as an area becomes densely developed.
Representatives Kampf, Harper, and Toepel introduced HB 2468 at the beginning of June. If you’re in their districts, please give them a big thanks!
* Article 1 is akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Pennsylvanians’ environmental rights are placed at the same level as rights to free speech, bear arms, and religion.