Pub­lic may get a say in state land trans­fers

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - From The Front Page -

Ev­ery year, the mem­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly vote to change the own­er­ship of some state-owned prop­erty, whether by gift, swap or sale.

Most of these moves are pack­aged to­gether in the an­nual con­veyance bill. Be­cause many of these trans­fers are small, it takes work to read through the en­tire bill to see if there’s some im­por­tant piece of land that leg­is­la­tors are plan­ning to cut loose.

“It take a lot of time and re­sources,” said Cather­ine Raw­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Weantinoge Her­itage Trust, the Litch­field County land trust based in Kent.

The trans­fer can also be a “rat” — a prop­erty trans­fer law­mak­ers fash­ion by adding a last-minute amend­ment to a bill, in hopes their ex­hausted endof-the-ses­sion col­leagues won’t no­tice ex­actly what they’re vot­ing for.

The sys­tem is ready for change. In Novem­ber, vot­ers will get the chance to do so.

There will be a ques­tion on the state bal­lot ask­ing vot­ers to re­vamp the ex­ist­ing land trans­fer sys­tem. If they ap­prove it, it will mean a change to the state con­sti­tu­tion.

That change will re­quire all state land trans­fers to be sub­ject to pub­lic hear­ings. Prop­erty trans­ferred be­tween de­part­ments will be ex­empt.

Fur­ther­more, if the prop­erty in ques­tion is state-owned open space land held by the Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion or farm­land pro­tected by the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, both houses of the Gen­eral Assem­bly will have to ap­prove the trans­fer by a two-thirds ma­jor­ity.

Not sur­pris­ingly, a large coali­tion of land trusts and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups backs the change.

If ap­proved, they say, it will en­sure the pub­lic gets to know about any pro­pos­als to trans­fer state land.

“It doesn’t say the state can never sell, swap or give land away,” said Eric Ham­mer­ling, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Con­necti­cut For­est and Park As­so­ci­a­tion. “We just want to make sure the pub­lic has a say.”

It also gives a strong mea­sure of pro­tec­tion to state-owned open space, mak­ing it harder for builders to eye park or for­est land, or con­vert farm fields to other uses when the agri­cul­ture depart­ment owns those fields’ de­vel­op­ment rights.

“We work re­ally hard to help peo­ple pro­tect their land — we of­ten part­ner with the state to do that,” said Lynne Werner, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Corn­wall-based Housatonic Val­ley As­so­ci­a­tion.

“There’s al­ways an as­sump­tion that the land will be pro­tected in per­pe­tu­ity.’’

“This will help pro­tect land not just for to­day, but for 100 years,’’ said Gor­don Lo­ery, co-pres­i­dent of the Red­ding Land Trust’s Board of Trus­tees.

Hav­ing open space means more habi­tat for wildlife and, hence, greater bio­di­ver­sity. Open land also buf­fers the state’s lakes, streams and rivers, pro­vid­ing a gi­ant fil­ter to keep that wa­ter clean.

“Open space is the best pro­tec­tion we have for our wa­ter re­sources,’’ said Mar­garet Miner, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Rivers Al­liance of Con­necti­cut.

Ham­mer­ling of the Con­necti­cut For­est and Park As­so­ci­a­tion also said that pre­serv­ing open space — along with bol­ster­ing the state’s en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity — boosts its econ­omy.

A 2011 Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut study, he said, shows that the state’s parks and forests gen­er­ate $1 bil­lion dol­lars a year in spend­ing, and sup­port 9,000 jobs.

“This is what state res­i­dents get from open land,” he said.

Miner and a few oth­ers in the state have been work­ing at cre­at­ing this change in how the state does busi­ness for about a decade.

It took six years to study the is­sue and de­ter­mine the only way to en­sure the pub­lic’s right to par­tic­i­pate in the process was through a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment.

“It may seem ex­treme, but it’s the only cure for the sit­u­a­tion,’’ Miner said.

Werner of the Housatonic Val­ley As­so­ci­a­tion said if vot­ers ap­prove the bal­lot ini­tia­tive, it will give them a bet­ter chance to know what the state is plan­ning to do with its land — pub­lic land.

“It slows things down and shines a light,’’ she said. “That’s all it does.”

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