We Need an Amendment-Free Vote This Week to Stop Irresponsible Eminent Domain
The Senate Local Government Committee reported out House Bill 2468 Wednesday afternoon in an 11-1 vote! The next step for the bill, which requires court approval of conservation easement condemnations, is a vote of the full Senate. Senators must pass the bill this week and cleanly—no amendments—to ensure that the bill’s protections are put in place before the legislature leaves for the summer.
Please contact your state senator(s) today and request that they:
(1) ask Senate leadership to put HB 2468 up for a vote THIS WEEK,
(2) vote for HB 2468, and
(3) OPPOSE ALL AMENDMENTS.
Respect Civic-Minded and Generous Donors
Families who donate conservation easements for the public good should not see their civic-mindedness and generosity punished by school districts (or other government bodies) thoughtlessly condemning these easements and the land they conserve.
A Fair and Balanced Approach
The legislative cure is fair and balanced. The bill only requires a search for reasonable and prudent alternatives to taking a conservation easement. In requiring orphan’s court review, HB 2468 establishes a level of review for conservation easement condemnations analogous to that already provided by the Agricultural Lands Condemnation Approval Board (ALCAB) for lands in agricultural security areas.
Upholding a Conservative Tool for Conservation
Conservation easements are a non-regulatory, property-rights-based tool. They are used to conserve special places for the public’s benefit without resort to regulation and without requiring public ownership. They keep land in private ownership. Poorly considered eminent domain threatens this conservative approach to protecting the places people care about.
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.
Check out the recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The heart of HB 2468 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.
Conservation easements are especially important in fast-growing 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.
HB 2468 was reported out of the House Local Government Committee on June 12 with a unanimous (27-0), bipartisan vote.
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.