Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Kevin Witkos (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — After tabling debate on the bill this weekend, the Senate passed a bill Monday proposing a constitutional amendment to protect state lands from being sold or given away without public input.

The bill, SJ 35, now moves to the House. It needs to be approved by a three-quarters vote of both chambers to get on the 2018 ballot for voters to approve. It passed the Senate by a 35-0 vote. It would need 114 votes in the House.

The annual land conveyance bill, which the General Assembly uses to sell or give away land, has been identified by environmentalists as problematic. The annual omnibus bill usually lands on lawmakers’ desks shortly before they adjourn and leaves many wondering whether the state is getting the best bang for its buck.

Usually, according to environmentalists, it’s not.

Remember the Haddam Land Swap in 2011? The General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved giving 17 acres along the Connecticut River in Haddam to Riverhouse Properties to build a hotel and a mix of retail spaces. In exchange, the state was given 87 acres adjacent to the Cockponset State Forest.

Environmentalists felt it was a bad deal for the state.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

The bill states, among other things, that the General Assembly cannot enact any legislation requiring a state agency to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of any real property or interest in real property that is under the custody or control of such agency to any person or entity other than another state agency unless a committee has held a public hearing regarding such sale.

State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., a Branford Democrat who co-chairs the Environment Committee, had filed an amendment to the resolution but seemed to change his mind about the bill. It’s the same bill he threatened to filibuster for hours on Saturday.

On Monday, he said the legislation was important to him as his days as a legislator are dwindling. Kennedy, who is not a darling of environmentalists, announced he won’t be seeking re-election this November.

“We need to act on special protections for state-owned property in Connecticut,” Kennedy said. He said environmentalists, including himself, have been “alarmed and upset by recent activities to privatize some of these assets.”

After a deal was struck to do other bills that Kennedy wanted, the resolution quickly passed the Senate with bipartisan support. It’s unclear what other bills Kennedy wanted in exchange for allowing the constitutional amendment to move forward.

“We’re trying to preserve open space,” Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said. Witkos noted that the state has a goal of having 20 percent of open space protected from developers by the year 2020 “and we’re only in the high teens — we have a little way go.”

Witkos said that if open space is sold, “it is important it is done in the light of the public,” which is something language in the bill ensures.

“After years of work to protect Connecticut’s state-owned lands from being swapped, sold, or given away through the annual ‘conveyance act,’ we are thrilled that the Senate has voted to put a resolution on the ballot in November to amend the state constitution to increase protections and provide greater public input for public lands,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.

“With a unanimous vote in the Senate, SJ35 has strong bipartisan support, and we look forward to a positive vote in the House in the coming days,” Hammerling added.