A bill, which could help municipalities sell public land to cover budget shortfalls, could see a vote as early as next week.
House Bill 2224 amends the Donated and Dedicated Property Act — a law that protects dedicated and donated property for public use — to allow state municipalities to sell land that was purchased if the land is “unencumbered by deed restrictions or covenants,” according to the bill.
Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the primary sponsor of the bill, said it will not harm the vitality of the Pennsylvania park system or local public spaces, but some park preservation groups are skeptical.
Mary Tracy, president of Scenic Philadelphia, said she is against the new piece of legislation.
“Once land is gone, its gone forever,” Tracy said . “This bill takes what belongs to the public, whether it’s a park or a plot of land, and allows public officials to own and sell the land and now, in some cases, without court approval.”
Under the latest version of the bill, a local municipality can apply to Orphan’s Court — a court for the public that protects the personal and property rights of all people and entities — to sell land or buildings.
John Dattilo, Penn State professor of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Management, said this issue is equally a societal responsibility issue.
“We need to keep our green spaces,” Dattilo said. “We need to maintain our public spaces and lands for future generations.”
Before House Bill 2224, all land that was donated, deed restricted, or protected by covenant needed to go to Orphan’s Court and receive approval before any type of sale was made, according to the original bill.
Now, donated lands and buildings can be sent to Orphan’s Court at the judgment of the local municipalities, while public lands that aren’t bound by deed restrictions or covenants can be sold without court approval, according to the new bill.
This means that, if in the opinion of the municipality, a piece of donated land is no longer useful to the public, the land can be sold by the municipality to an interested party if the court grants approval, according to the new bill.
Tracy said the ownership of these lands has been “stricken” and given over to the municipality.
“Everyone has a favorite park, a place to walk in the fall or take their kids to play ball, and then they will realize they won’t have that park anymore,” she said.
It also means land that wasn’t deed restricted or bound by covenant does not need Orphan’s Court approval to be sold by the municipality, according to the new bill.
Cutler said the law would have minimal impact, help cash-strapped local governments and help with litigation finances.
“It will a have low impact on the general population and will also help save municipalities legal fees,” Cutler said. “Some people are applying the law more broadly than it exists.”
Cutler said citizens of Pennsylvania don’t need to worry and proper restrictions still protect much of the public land.
It’s only a small number of properties the bill will affect, he said, and if they are appropriately deed restricted then it will follow the Orphan’s court process
Andrew Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, raised concerns about the bill’s practicality.
“The bill radically changes the law,” Loza said. “Our concern is the government not doing the research on the properties and making short-sighted decisions.”