The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association issued the following letter to the Cumberland Valley School Board on April 12 regarding its condemnation of McCormick Farm, upon which Natural Lands holds a conservation easement.
Re: Condemnation of McCormick Farm Is Ethically and Legally Suspect
These comments regarding the Cumberland Valley’s condemnation of the McCormick Farm are submitted on behalf of the 75 charitable, conservation organizations that make up the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.
The Association respects that there are times when condemnation is necessary to advance a public good. However, government’s use of the eminent domain tool must be judicious. The Association finds CV’s condemnation inappropriate on several counts:
Taking More Land Than Foreseeably Necessary
CV is taking 110 acres. This is an extraordinary amount of land—far more than necessary for the middle school the school board has cited a need for. Several middle schools could easily fit in this space. It is not ethical (and likely not lawful) for the district to seize this much land given the board’s failure to articulate a compelling need for all of it.
Failure to Respect Silver Spring’s Zoning
The McCormick Farm is zoned as agricultural preserve. School facilities are not a permitted use of the McCormick Farm. For the school district to proceed with eminent domain without first addressing this fundamental obstacle to construction of school facilities is highly problematic.
Premised on Taking Something for Nothing
PennLive reported on March 5 that the school board has a sense that it can take something for nothing—that it can take the land at a bargain price due to the land being conserved by Natural Lands. If this were possible, the ethics of it are questionable. Beyond that, the Association believes that the courts will swiftly dispel the notion that something can be taken for nothing. The deed of grant of conservation easement that the donors used to convey the conservation easement to Natural Lands, although not the easiest read, seems reasonably clear that CV will have to pay full price for the land. A portion of the money will go to the landowner and a portion of which will go to Natural Lands, each having a real property interest in the land. In the end, CV will find this condemnation to be far more expensive than represented to the public.
Failure to Consider Environmental Rights
The school district is bound to abide by the Pennsylvania Constitution, including its Declaration of Rights (article 1), which is akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Section 27 reads:
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. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
The public record does not indicate any effort on the part of CV to consider these rights before proceeding with the condemnation. The courts have yet to fully define to what length a school district must go in regards to upholding these environmental rights, but the school board appears on shaky ground in not having given any consideration to the conservation easement whose stated purpose is “to preserve the Property as open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public…”
The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association urges the school board to quickly remedy the error it has made in condemning the McCormick Farm.
Andrew M. Loza