WeConservePA has updated their Model Declaration of Public Trust, which includes three variations on model declarations, plus explanatory commentary. A broader description of the models and commentary follows below:
Formalizing Intentions, Ensuring Protections, and Making Exceptions
People rely on their parks and other public open spaces as stable, reliable places of comfort, rest, and renewal in their lives. They expect that these places will always be there for them. This expectation is supported by the Pennsylvania Constitution, centuries of common law, and statutes enacted by the General Assembly. It is not necessary for land to be formally dedicated as parkland or for other open space purposes for the law to recognize it as land held in trust for the public by a municipality or county (rather than land that the local government is free to develop or dispose of at will).
However, there is gray area in determining: (1) whether land has been informally dedicated for park or other open space purposes and (2) if informally or formally dedicated, whether a particular government action affecting the land is allowable. To reduce risks of confusion, misunderstanding, and ill will regarding acceptable and non-acceptable uses of land held by a municipality or county, the local government may want to make a practice of formally dedicating lands it intends to hold in trust for the public and, at that time, explicitly stating any reservations, exceptions, or limitations applicable to the dedication.
WeConservePA provides the following model legal documents to help governments accomplish this:
- Model Declaration of Public Trust [basic form]. By signing and recording the declaration, the local government permanently dedicates the land to certain public purposes. It is the shortest and simplest of the three alternatives.
- Model Declaration of Public Trust [expanded form]. This alternative expands on the basic form, providing options to exclude portions of the land from the dedication and detail the activities, uses, facilities, and improvements that are considered consistent with the public purposes.
- Model Declaration of Public Trust and Grant of Conservation Easement. This alternative builds on the expanded form. It grants to a land trust an interest in the property—a conservation easement—that empowers the organization to uphold the public purposes of the dedication and enforce its covenants should the need arise in the future. It provides an additional layer of assurance that the public purposes set forth in the declaration will be respected in perpetuity.
A single commentary addresses the three models. The commentary explains the reasoning behind each provision and provides alternative and optional provisions that may be useful in particular situations.
The models serve to dedicate land to public purposes in perpetuity. These purposes, briefly stated, are to:
- Assure public access to the land for outdoor recreation; and, to
- Assure that the land remains predominantly undeveloped and provides open space benefits.
Local governments may also use the models to:
- Clearly exclude certain property interests from the dedication (e.g., a location for a future maintenance garage, salt dome, or administration building), ensuring that these interests aren’t inadvertently dedicated, whether formally or informally;
- Ensure the character of the land is not dramatically changed (e.g., replacing century-old woodland and walking trails with tennis courts); or,
- Support an argument to the county assessment board that the land is actually and regularly used for public purposes and thus exempt from taxation.