Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Not so easy to tinker with parkland rules, and that's good

A proposal before the Pennsylvania legislature that would remove court oversight in some instances when municipal officials try to sell little-used public lands is belatedly getting well-deserved scrutiny from parks and conservation groups.

Not so easy to tinker with parkland rules, and that's good

Horseback riding is one of the many attractions in the city´s park
Horseback riding is one of the many attractions in the city's park WILLIAM BENDER / DAILY NEWS STAFF

A proposal before the Pennsylvania legislature that would remove court oversight in some instances when municipal officials try to sell little-used public lands is belatedly getting well-deserved scrutiny from parks and conservation groups.

The Philadelphia Parks Alliance, representing hundreds of members, warns that the bill it's dubbed “cash for parks” would “make it easier for cash-strapped local governments to sell off land” that communities and park-friends groups worked hard to preserve and maintain.

The Lancaster County Republican lawmaker who wrote the bill, which sailed through the House, says he’s only trying to clean up legal language governing sales of property not dedicated as parks. Even so, the resulting confusion over the potential impact on parkland of Rep. Bryan Cutler’s proposal has created its own mess.

There’s good reason to be concerned any time court oversight is removed from a government initiative, particularly when it involves selling municipal assets.

Should Pa. lawmakers tinker with rules on selling off open space?
No, conservation groups say it threatens parks
Yes, legislation author says safeguards will still apply to parks
No, changes likely to have unintended consequences that are damaging to parks
Yes, really believe lawmakers who say it's only fine-tuning the law

That’s why current state law provides what the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association describes as “long-standing rules that ensure government cannot sell parks and other green spaces if the lands provide a public benefit.”

Additional alarm bells should go off when Cutler suggests that he’s only talking about “underused properties or those which are difficult to maintain.” In a tough economic climate that’s straining municipal budgets everywhere, a good many communities might find it difficult to maintain open space.

With court oversight of decisions to dispose of publicly held property, there’s at least a check against municipal officials unwisely opting for short-term gain from such sales. It also acts as a safeguard against officials using a steamroller to thwart legitimate public opposition to potential development slated for a site.

Even with such legal protections in place, Philadelphia park advocates rightly insisted that, under the newly combined city Parks and Recreation Department, decisions about selling city land would be subject to a special public-review process.

When Cutler’s bill reached a state Senate committee this week, concerns about it prompted two amendments. But the Senate version still fails to restore court oversight, meaning that the bill remains, as the Land Trust aptly put it, “fundamentally flawed.”

With his amendments, Senate Majority Leader Dominic F. Pileggi (R., Chester) has put the brakes on legislation that had been subject to far too little review.

That’s positive, yet the best approach now to assure the preservation of treasured parklands would be to take a completely fresh look at whether this measure is needed at all. The danger in hastily passing the legislation without careful consideration is simply too great.

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