PennLIVE: “Pennsylvania lawmakers wade into school district land-taking issues”
JUNE 12, 2018
By Charles Thompson
A group of state lawmakers are pushing to fast-track a bill designed to strengthen the hand of “perpetuity” when it comes to land conservation.
Specifically, House Bill 2468 would force create school districts and other governmental agencies eyeing land subject to private conservation easements to win prior court approval before starting condemnation proceedings.
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 that strength of that tool is now being threatened statewide by recent actions of two Pennsylvania school districts that have moved on protected estates for school construction or expansion projects.
“I’m concerned that these permanently preserved lands are now being viewed as targets by school boards,” said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery County an one of the new bill’s champions.
“They’re big spaces… and the boards are going to look first at these lands in the hopes they can get them cheap.”
She’s also concerned that the takings could have a chilling effect on future preservation efforts.
“Why would anybody give their land (to a conservancy) if the government could right away override their deepest desires?” Harper asked.
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.
As of Monday, the school board there had not filed a formal declaration of taking to date.
The bill drafted by Rep. Warren Kampf, a Republican representing parts of Chester and Montgomery counties, would require any public entity to seek court approval for any move on land subject to such no-development agreements.
As part of that process, Kampf’s bill states, the 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.
It is, Kampf said, “one additional standard that is not there at the present… and that reflects the value that our communities place on open space.”
The bill would apply to lands subject to conservation easements only; not to farms that are in the state’s farmland preservation program. Those tracts already enjoy a more stringent set of protections against public agency condemnation.
PennLive efforts to reach the Pennsylvania School Boards Association for comment on the bill late Monday were not immediately successful.
Harper’s House Local Government Committee is scheduled to consider the Kampf bill this week, and possibly as early as Tuesday, as part of an effort to see if supporters can get full House and Senate passage before the summer break.
That’s a tall order for a newly-drafted piece of legislation.
But supporters are banking on building a coalition of southeastern lawmakers who prize land preservation efforts in the Philadelphia suburbs, where development pressures are unrelenting, and private property rights champions who traditionally like to place limits on the use of eminent domain.
Harper said she has also begun rounding up champions in the Senate Republican caucus who could lead the drive in that chamber, but the first test will be in the House over the next week.