PennLive: “Pa. House passes bill creating higher hurdles for public taking of protected lands”
JUNE 19, 2018
By Charles Thompson
The Pennsylvania state House has given a quick and speedy approval to a bill that would require school districts and other public entities to get court approval of any taking of preserved lands.
The bill, introduced last month in response to pending issues in Montgomery and Cumberland counties, passed 179-18 Tuesday, and now moves to the state Senate for further action.
It was not immediately clear if that chamber will take up the bill before the looming summer recess.
Specifically, House Bill 2468 would force school districts and other governmental agencies eyeing land subject to private conservation easements to win prior court approval before starting condemnation proceedings.
As part of that process, the bill states, a judge must find “there is no reasonable and prudent alternative… for the project” besides the targeted tract.
That’s a marked changed from the status quo, in which public takings generally go forward, and then the burden is on the holder of the easements to fight a rear-guard action to block it.
Easements are a relatively common land preservation tool, imposed to protect specific tracts from development that would erase or threaten a variety of open space benefits.
Some worry the strength of that tool is now being threatened statewide by the recent actions of two Pennsylvania school districts that have moved on protected estates for school construction or expansion projects.
The projects that are driving the debate include, locally, Cumberland Valley School District’s condemnation of the old McCormick Farm property off Carlisle Pike in Silver Spring Township.
Cumberland Valley has said it would like to develop a new and larger middle school on the site, to help keep up with surging student enrollments.
That taking is currently being challenged in Cumberland County courts by Natural Lands, the holder of the no-development easement, though the district insists language in the property’s deed gives its eminent domain powers primacy over the easement.
An evidentiary hearing in the Cumberland Valley case is set for Aug. 6.
Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, Lower Merion School District has raised public concerns over its consideration of taking a portion of Stoneleigh, a 42-acre estate in Villanova that is owned outright by Natural Lands.
Lower Merion, facing the same kind of growth pressures as Cumberland Valley, is considering taking at least a 6.9-acre portion of that estate, which the suburban Philly district is eyeing for playing field space, and maybe more.
Interestingly, the state lawmakers who represent portions of Cumberland Valley were split on the bill.
Reps. Steve Bloom, R-Carlisle, voted no on the bill Tuesday. Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Camp Hill, abstained because of his real estate firm’s representation of the current owner of the McCormick Farm.
And Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, was in favor.
Bloom said via email that he voted against the bill because he was concerned about creating two tiers of land-owner.
“I am concerned… that if this bill is enacted, more private unrestricted residential and commercial property will be taken by eminent domain, because of these new special legal privileges being given only to landowners who have entered into voluntary conservation easements,” he said.