A constitutional amendment to bolster the protection of state-owned open space passed the Senate and House before the General Assembly adjourned Wednesday. However, proponents will have to raise the bill again next year in order to get it on the ballot for voters.
The measure passed by a 31-5 vote in the Senate late Wednesday afternoon. Less than 30 minutes before the midnight deadline, the House voted 85-62 in favor, but it was short of the super majority necessary to get on the November 2016 ballot.
Proponents of the measure promised to return next year.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, who first called for the amendment, said it 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. There would also have to be a standalone measure detailing the deal.
“It really should be left to the voters to make these decisions,” Witkos said. “That is all that this is about.”
He was joined in support of the bill by, among others, Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., co-chairman of the Environment Committee.
“My view is public lands are held in public trust. Land should not be disposed of lightly,” Kennedy said.
But Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said a constitutional amendment goes “too far” and is not necessary given the legislative process that’s currently in place.
The bill had bipartisan support. Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, said, “I don’t take lightly amending our constitution, but I support this bill.”
The bill has strong support from park and land preservation groups.
During a public hearing on the amendment, 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 agriculture.
“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 testified.
Allowing legislators to convey open space “is an affront to the public trust,” Pamela Adams, the vice president and treasurer of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said during that same public hearing.
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.
Three states in the region — New York, Maine, and Massachusetts — already have constitutional provisions to protect public lands.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.