Public may get a say in state land transfers
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.”