Following votes in the Pennsylvania House (177-15) and Senate (37-12), Governor Tom Wolf signed HB 2468 into law as Act 45 of 2018 on June 24. The bill, which was introduced in early June by Representatives Warren Kampf, Kate Harper, and Marcy Toepel, establishes for conservation easements a crucial new safeguard: school districts, county and local municipal governments, and utilities (excepting projects involving federal review) must convince the county orphans’ court* that there is no reasonable and prudent alternative before taking a conservation easement.
This extraordinary advancement in conservation easement protection occurred in record-breaking time and with strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly.
This thrilling achievement would not have been possible without land trust people investing deeply in building relationships with state and local officials through the years. It was fortunate that two legislative leaders experienced first-hand the extraordinary beauty of Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh at a retirement party just months before the public garden came to be threatened by eminent domain. But it was no accident that they were invited to attend that party for Dulcie Flaharty, a land trust leader who has engaged with officials in the region for a quarter century.
The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association’s core messages during the brief campaign for the law can be summarized as follows:
- Respect the generous acts of civic-minded and generous donors.
- Uphold a conservative tool for conservation—a non-regulatory, property-rights-based tool that keeps land in private ownership.
- Adopt a fair and balanced approach. The legislation doesn’t block eminent domain if there isn’t a reasonable and prudent alternative available.
- Don’t upend the expectations of community members who believe their beloved special places are there for the long run.
- Especially given Pennsylvanians’ constitutional rights to the preservation of the environment, it’s only reasonable that governments should look for alternatives to taking easements established pursuant to public policy.
In the first week of the new law, the Cumberland Valley School District announced that it is ending its effort to take the preserved McCormick Farm in Cumberland County. Many in the Philly area hope the Lower Merion School District will follow suit by ending their pursuit of Stoneleigh.
Suggested further reading:
“’They Almost Need Therapists’: How the Fight to Save Stoneleigh Brought Pa. Zombie Pols back to Life, Too” (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
“With Act 45 in Place, CV School District Will File to Drop McCormick Farm Case” (The Carlisle Sentinel)
“Don’t Let the Lower Merion School District Plunder Our Precious Open Space” (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
* Orphan’s courts in Pennsylvania address matters involving charitable assets.