Hoping to put an end to late night, last-minute deals that put public lands in jeopardy, a Republican state senator Wednesday called for a constitutional amendment aimed at preserving public lands in perpetuity.
During a news conference at the Legislative Office Building, state Sen. Kevin Witkos, a Canton Republican, said it’s critical “to make sure that generations to come enjoy what we have today.”
His proposed amendment, which has strong support from park and land preservation groups, would allow the state to sell or swap open space property owned by taxpayers only after a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the General Assembly on a stand-alone measure detailing the deal.
Witkos also seeks to guarantee that any proceeds from a land sale could be used only to acquire more open space, parks, forests or farms.
David Leff, a former deputy commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that people who want to save their favorite hiking trails, fishing holes, and recreational space for the future should get behind the proposed amendment.
Three states in the region — New York, Maine, and Massachusetts — have long had constitutional provisions to protect valuable open space from lawmakers tempted to peddle public properties. Witkos said it’s time that Connecticut joined them.
As a first step, the measure likely will land in Government Administration and Elections Committee, which has oversight over constitutional matters. If it backs the proposal, legislators would have a chance to vote on it in the upcoming session.
If both houses approve a constitutional amendment by more than a two-thirds margin, it would be placed on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Witkos said that’s what he’s aiming for.
The idea arose last fall when Witkos visited with Leff at the latter’s home in Collinsville.
“I never thought so much could come of sitting on my front porch,” said Leff, happy to find someone eager to champion “a dream I have had for many years.”
Leff said it’s important to preserve “the blessings of these places” because residents will always need them “to challenge their bodies and to soothe and renew their spirits.”
“We can’t be giving away public land without getting any benefit to the public,” Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said.
Hammerling said in their most recent session alone, legislators considered selling 4.7 acres of Silver Sands State Park in Milford for a parking lot, giving up 100 acres of forest in Fairfield, and allowing two private roads through state-owned habitat critical for toads. Fortunately, none of the proposals passed, he said, but they never should have gotten so far.
Several proponents of the amendment pointed to the lengthy fight to block a controversial deal which sought to swap 17 acres of state forest near the Connecticut River in Haddam to a developer in return for 87 acres elsewhere — a plan that died in 2012.
Amy B. Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, said there is a lot of frustration among people who care about open space that public lands “are largely unprotected and vulnerable.”
She said that adopting the proposed constitutional amendment would “help restore the confidence” of the state’s 137 private land trusts and others keenly interested in the issue.
Allowing legislators to convey open space property “is an affront to the public trust,” Pamela Adams, the vice president and treasurer of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said.
Adams said there have been “many attempts over the years” to hand over public land to developers, municipalities and others who had no intention of protecting it.
With ever-tighter budgets and growing pressure to act, Adams said there is an increased likelihood that lawmakers will fail to preserve lands that should be held for future generations unless the state’s constitution is changed to make it difficult to transfer property.
Neither of the co-chairmen of the GAE committee — state Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, and state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme — could be reached for comment Wednesday.