June 22, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Conservation and Preservation Easements Act. This landmark act greatly strengthened the validity and enforceability of conservation easements in Pennsylvania. It also broke new ground in the United States by establishing the principle that when there is ambiguity in the text of an easement document, the courts must resolve the ambiguity in favor of the conservation purposes of the easement and the legislative act. This innovation discarded the long-standing common law standard that resolved all ambiguity in favor of the landowner.
Passage of the act was WeConservePA’s first major legislative project and victory.
The act, twelve years in the making, began with the initiative of State Representative Sam Morris and the collaboration of several conservation stakeholders. Morris, who served in the legislature from 1971 to 1990, co-founded the French & Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust (FPCCT) with his wife, Eleanor.
The legislation was of importance to Morris because, at the time, a landowner was defying development restrictions on a property protected by FPCCT. The land trust had filed three injunctions with the Chester County Court of Common Pleas to stop development of a 4,800 square-foot house, but the judge ruled in favor of the landowner. After appealing all the way to the Superior Court and having the case referred back to Common Pleas, the court ordered the landowner to remove the structure. FPCCT ultimately prevailed but incurred huge costs and had its organizational energy sapped for years. Better Pennsylvania law could have greatly eased this easement enforcement burden.
The legislation was first introduced in 1989 with lobbyist Jay Layman tapped to help move it. The bill was initially modeled after the “Uniform Conservation Easement Act” drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws, but a number of significant changes were made. Several, including the introduction of the groundbreaking principle noted above, were suggested by attorney Pat Pregmon.
Over the course of the law’s 12-year gestation—the lengthiness due in part to the act’s groundbreaking nature—the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association (now WeConservePA) formed and worked with Layman to get the bill passed.
Opposition to the bill included, among others, the coal industry and the Pennsylvania Builders Association. “Pennsylvania is a diverse state with a lot of political dynamics,” Layman explained, “and this [act] was major policy, converting over 400 years of English law into a statute.”
In all, eight versions of the bill were introduced over the course of a dozen years with changes made to improve the legislation and address concerns from various interests.
In March 2001, House Bill 975 was introduced by Representative Ray Bunt, a Montgomery County Republican who had sponsored previous versions of the legislation. The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and Governor Ridge signed it into law as Act 29 of 2001 on June 22.
Andy Loza, executive director of WeConservePA, commended Layman’s steadfast dedication to the cause. “Jay’s unwavering commitment to the passage of a quality bill, his knowledge of the legislative process, and his relationships with stakeholders were crucial to our success.”
Layman reflected that WeConservePA’s work to educate and engage people on the need was crucial. In addition to Morris and Bunt, he credited Andy Loza, Tom Kerr and Dennis Collins (founders of WeConservePA), Barbara Yeaman (founder of Delaware Highlands Conservancy), John Oliver (formerly of Western PA Conservancy), and Bob Struble (White Clay Creek Conservancy) as instrumental to the success.
As of 2019, sixty-five land trusts have protected 276,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania with conservation easements. County and local governments have conserved even more. Most of this land enjoys the tremendous protections of the Conservation and Preservation Easements Act.