Ronnie Polaneczky: Bill would place parks at the whim of pols

Posted: September 27, 2012

LET ME TELL YOU about a bill that's been flying through Harrisburg with so little public input, it seems meant to screw us.

House Bill 2224 would allow political leaders to get rid of certain types of public parks any time they felt it was for the best - and "best" could mean whatever they wanted it to mean.

So they could sell off a park if, say, their borough needed cash to pay for a new firehouse. Or if a favorite developer needed a lucrative site to build townhouses. Or if they thought a strip mall would make better use of the land than a baseball diamond would.

And no matter how we yelled or threatened to vote these people out of office if they took our parks, HB 2224 would let them do it anyway. Because the bill takes away the court oversight that currently protects these parks from political whim.

I wish I were making this up. But I'm not. And I wish there were more time to halt HB 2224 so the public could debate its merits and drawbacks. But there isn't.

In June, the bill passed unanimously in the House, its clever wording helping it stay so far below the radar that even the normally plugged-in Pennsylvania Land Trust Association and Philadelphia Parks Alliance were taken off guard by its existence. And yesterday, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed HB 2224 to set the Senate up for a vote.

That vote could happen as early as Monday. So if you care whether your local park gets sold to the most connected crony or for the most shortsighted reasons, contact your senator, pronto, and ask him or her to vote against the bill.

At the end of this column, I'll tell you how to do that (it's easy). But first let me explain how this situation came about. Because something smells here.

Currently, the state's parks fall under the Dedicated and Donated Property Act. Among other things, the act dictates the criteria by which a park may be used for a purpose other than its original, intended one.

But the argument for the alternate use must be made to a county's orphan's court, which decides whether the criteria have been met. If not, the park should remain untouched.

Such was the case in 2008, when Fox Chase Cancer Center, with support from the city, wanted to expand its campus into Burholme Park - a move that neighbors opposed. After a protracted battle against a bitter backdrop of wealth, class and differing visions for the city's future, the court sided with neighbors and Burholme was left alone.

Say what you want about whether that was the best outcome. The greater point is, the city was not allowed to make a unilateral decision about something as important as the future of a multi-acre tract of land that had been deeded to the public in perpetuity. Instead, the court heard all sides and rendered an opinion.

That's called balance.

But HB 2224, if passed, would remove the court's oversight altogether, leaving decisions about alternative uses of countless parks to political leaders acting on their own discretion.

It would also affect conservation easements - including those acquired with public funds - and other deed restrictions on publicly owned lands. Again, without court oversight.

So why amend an act that has protected Pennsylvania public spaces for more than five decades?

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, who introduced HB 2224, told me the bill is meant to "clarify" language in the act that the state Supreme Court found vague when it reviewed a case involving an Erie golf course, which was sold to developers.

But its aim is more than that, as Cutler made clear in a January letter to colleagues. HB 2224, he wrote, would make it easier for local governments to sell parks in a "challenging economy" (which opponents have dubbed "cash for parks"). And it would remove a "stealth weapon" that opponents use to block development.

When someone uses the term "stealth weapon" to describe judicial oversight - in which the voices of the common man are heard alongside those with power - my antennae shoot skyward.

Still, maybe there's something to Cutler's bill, says Andy Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

"If there's a more efficient way to deal with alternative uses for parks that no longer serve a park purpose, let's discuss that," he says. "But this bill takes a sledgehammer to an issue when precise surgical attention is needed."

And we could lose our parks as a result.

To contact your senator about HB 2224, go to philaparks.org and click on "Take Action Now!" (on the right). The links will help you find and contact your senator.


Contact Ronnie Polaneczky at polaner@phillynews.com or 215-854-2217. Follow her on Twitter @RonniePhilly. Read her blog at philly.com/ronnieblog, or for recent columns go to philly.com/Ronnie.

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