Jeff Holcombe / shutterstock
An old stone wall winds through an open hardwood forest in Vernon, Connecticut. (Jeff Holcombe / shutterstock)

The fate of a proposed constitutional amendment to bolster the protection of state-owned open space remains uncertain.

During a Monday hearing, the General Administration and Elections Committee heard a number of concerns about its wording from residents and agencies concerned it may go too far.

Among those expressing reservations was Robert Klee, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Klee told Rep. Ed Jutila, the East Lyme Democrat who co-chairs the panel, that the process for executive branch land swaps and sales “is functioning well” because if offers close review and transparency for the public.

The real worry, many said, is that legislators have too often tried to shove through last-second deals with no public warning.

Dave Rauch, a Meriden resident, told the committee that his pride in Connecticut “took a big hit” after he learned of lawmakers trying to use the Conveyance Act last year “for special interest and selfish purposes.”

Rauch said “the tactics that were employed had all the earmarks of the kind of back room, sneaky politics that the rest of us find so distasteful.” He added that the proposed amendment “would protect us from actions that detract from the public faith in government.”

Dennis Schain, the DEEP’s communications director, said the department was “encouraged the whole matter is being taken seriously,” but added that “the best solution remains to be seen.”

Klee said he would be happy to look at a proposed amendment focused on the legislative conveyance process that is “the crux of our challenge here.”

“I am willing, obviously, to sit down with the committee and talk about new or different or proposed language” to address the problem, he told Jutila.

Schain said there may be alternatives to an amendment that lawmakers may want to consider.

Karl J. Wagener, executive director of the Council on Environmental Quality, said the current DEEP administration has been “quite protective of the public’s interest” but that could someday change. He said the permanent protection of state land shouldn’t depend on who is at the helm at the department.

Even as it is, Wagener said, the DEEP and General Assembly “have been asked to consider proposals totaling hundreds of acres” in just the last four years.

Though most were not approved, “the door remains wide open. And that door should not be wide open, or even perceived to be wide open,” Wagener said. “Lands held in trust for the public should not be exchanged or given away except in extraordinary circumstances.”

Sen. Kevin Witkos, the Canton Republican who first called for the amendment, urged legislators to approve the “incredible, forward-looking” proposal and put it on the November ballot so voters can have the final say. The idea has strong support from park and land preservation groups.

Amy Blaymore Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, said the state holds more than 250,000 acres for parks, forests, wildlife management areas, and other open spaces for conservation, recreation and agricultural.

“These lands were acquired with an expectation — on the part of the landowner conveying the land as well as on the part of the public — that they would be preserved in trust for the benefit of Connecticut’s citizens,” she said.

“Yet our public lands are largely unprotected; and year after year we find ourselves in a position of having to defend them,” Paterson said in testimony calling for the amendment’s adoption.

The measure, which aims to hold most land in perpetuity, would allow the state to sell or swap open space 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 said some revision to the terms is needed to allow for minor deals, such as boundary revisions, to move ahead without such an involved process.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said the measure should also include a requirement that buyers pay the cost of public hearings and studies on a proposed sale and that they fork over the fair market value for the land they seek.

Proponents said they’re weary of late-night moves in the legislature to sell property, usually to developers, with little or no public scrutiny of the terms. They said an amendment would require officials to act in the sunlight and make a case strong enough to convince two-thirds of their colleagues in each house of the General Assembly.

Given the legislature’s tendency to conduct their “worst mischief” as a session comes to an end, Hammerling said his group is convinced “the only option that will better protect public lands with agricultural, conservation, and recreational values is a constitutional amendment.”

Wagener said the proposed amendment “would give the public assurances that their beloved state lands will be preserved forever” aside from rare exceptions.

He said the environmental council “sees no alternative if Connecticut is serious about protecting conservation lands permanently.”

Three states in the region — New York, Maine, and Massachusetts — already have constitutional provisions to protect public lands.