We need to amend the state constitution to protect public lands. We will get the chance to do that on Election Day, Nov. 6, as an amendment will be on our ballots. Why do we need to vote “Yes”?
Currently, the state legislature can sell, swap or give away state parks, forest and farmland without first holding a public hearing. Virtually none of the land owned by the state has any restrictions that would prevent this. It could happen at Enders or Peoples or any American Legion state forests. These public lands belong to all of us; we should have a say in how they are used.
The proposed amendment will give that voice. The amendment will appear as Question 2 on the ballot. It may be on the back side; ask an election official if you have trouble finding it. The wording of the question is legalistic and lengthy.
Here is an explanation of what it will provide if passed by a simple majority of voters.
If passed, a public hearing will be required before any public lands can be sold or given away. Following the public hearing, there will be a vote in both the senate and the house. A two-thirds vote in those bodies will ensure that state parks, forests, wildlife management areas and state-owned farmland cannot be sold, swapped or given away to private companies, local governments or anyone else. It will give you, the public and real owners of these properties, the chance to weigh in before anything happens to these valuable lands.
Why is an amendment to our constitution necessary?
Can’t the legislature just pass a law to require a public hearing? An amendment is necessary because the legislature can ignore its own laws. Public lands are conveyed in a bill passed at the very end of a congressional session. The language in the bill always begins with “Notwithstanding any provision of the General Statutes….”. By using that language, the legislature has the power to ignore its own laws, but it cannot ignore the constitution.
Couldn’t the legislature pass a rule requiring that all transfers of public lands receive a public hearing?
Yes, but the legislature suspends its rules late in the session, allowing eleventh-hour amendments to sell, swap or give away lands to be filed, so no public hearing gets to be held. Even the legislators themselves may not know about the amendment when they vote on the conveyance bill. These last minute amendments are known as “rats.”
Why should public lands be protected?
Two big reasons come to mind. For many of us, these lands are the only source of nearby open space for relaxation and enjoyment of nature. Also, public recreational land is a great investment. State parks and forests attract eight million annual visitors, generate one billion dollars in revenue and support 9,000 private sector jobs. They are a powerful economic engine both locally and statewide.
Is this a partisan issue? Who is behind it?
In order to get on the ballot, the legislature had to approve the amendment by a three-quarters supermajority in each chamber. The vote in the senate was 35-0; in the house, 118-32. The amendment is supported by over 130 conservation organizations, including the Granby Land Trust, the Farmington River Watershed Association, the National Wildlife Federation and the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.
Have any other states done something like this?
Yes. Similar constitutional protections have been enacted in Maine, Massachusetts and New York.
As voters, we have a chance to do a really good thing on Election Day: vote “Yes” on Question 2 and encourage others to vote “Yes” as well.
Retired attorney Eric Lukingbeal is the President of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.