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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can We Trust Our Parks to Our Politicians? Crisis Looming in PA

Update: The PA Senate did not vote on HB2224 before the end of the 2012 legislative session, so the bill is dead.  For now.  Stay vigilant.  If it came up once, it can come up again in a future legislative session.
(Also, I added a mea culpa to the sixth paragraph, 3/25/13)
Last week I coordinated an Outdoor Open House, essentially a nature walk, at an 86-acre, historic farm that my municipality currently owns as "Open Space."  The Open Space designation means that the public is welcome to use the property for passive recreation, like hiking, biking, birdwatching, or fishing.

Open Space also means that, with no official “XYZ Park” sign advertising its presence, stating that it is a municipally-owned, passive recreation property, not many township residents might notice if our municipal officials decided to sell off the 86 acres to a developer.  Do I sound a bit paranoid?  Keep reading.

Currently, if the township wanted to sell it, they would have to go to the county orphans court and demonstrate that they have a financial hardship and need to liquidate the property for cash to meet expenses.  But, as unbelievable as it may sound, there is currently a pending bill in the Pennsylvania state senate that would remove the requirement for court approval for counties or municipalities to sell off public park or open space land.  HB2224, which has since been nicknamed the Cash for Parks Bill, somehow got railroaded through the state legislature with bipartisan, unanimous approval.  I've been unable to determine how the bill's sponsors represented, or quite possibly misrepresented, this bill to secure unanimous passage in the lower house.

The only speed bump to municipal liquidation of lands that were obtained to be held in public trust for public use is a requirement for the "cash-strapped" municipality to hold a public hearing to hear the public's comments on their pending sale.  The municipal officials are not obligated to respond in any way to concerns raised by the public at those hearings.

If HB2224 passes the Senate, it will surely be signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, who has proven time and time again that his loyalties are to business interests and lobbyists rather than to the people of Pennsylvania.  And if HB2224 passes, would any municipality REALLY have the balls to sell off one of its parks or passive use open space areas for some quick cash?

 Well, I can think of one municipality in particular where it could happen with ease.  The unnamed municipality I'm thinking of has three realtors on their board of five township commissioners. (Please note: one of the commissioners pointed out to me this afternoon that  only two of them have real estate licenses.  Duly noted, sir.  In my defense, however, the commissioner whom I had counted among the licensed Realtors previously had a PA real estate instructor's license, but it is no longer active.  He is currently employed as CEO of the local Association of Realtors.  But he does not have a current PA real estate license of any kind.  So I stand corrected.  SAA, 3/25/13) 

And, while it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, they proved themselves undeserving of the public's trust with a backroom deal they did two years ago with the biggest land developer in the area.  Although the developer did not prove any hardship to warrant rezoning nearly 700 acres of land zoned agricultural preservation, they granted the developer rezoning to commercial/light industrial with a sprinkling of residential.  In exchange, the developer promised to deed the adjoining floodplain land to the township for a greenway park.  But if township residents were not screwed sufficiently by this deal which will soon clog narrow local roads with tractor trailers going to and from the new warehouses, the agreement with the developer requires the trails in “his” section of the new greenway to be named after his family.  Do you still think I’m too paranoid?

Would township commissioners who were not employed in real estate been as willing to make a sweetheart deal like this with a major local developer?  I wish I knew.

The take home message here is that, yes, there certainly are municipal officials who would be sleazy enough to sell off municipal property – land that had been bequeathed or dedicated to the public for parks or open space lands – under the pretense of municipal austerity.  But municipal austerity is not the true driver of the Cash for Parks Bill.  I think the more likely driver of park liquidation would be the politicians’ ability to help political contributors or silent business partners benefit financially from former parkland coming onto the market.  Can’t you see the ads in the real estate section of the local paper?  Get your own custom-built McMansion nestled in a park-like setting … because it used to be a PARK.

If you live in Pennsylvania, please write to your state senator TODAY to tell him or her that HB2224 is a ready-made abuse of the public trust.

1 comment:

  1. Here in Bethlehem, a representive came to speak to our TU chapter about the Housenick estate on the banks of Monocacy Creek, and how it was under jeopardy of being developed in some sort of silly way.

    It was the first time I bothered to pay much attention to local politics, where I quickly learned that, IIRC, all but one of the Bethlehem Township controllers were land developers (or directly related to such) in their own backyard.

    Its a matter of time before it gets wrecked, I guess, for an apartment complex and maybe another half empty stripmall. They'll tell us how its upscale, I'll remember the trees and springs under the pavement.

    Anyways, maybe they call call it Lifted Lorax Apartments. -shrug- We're all doomed.