Next time you visit Rocky Neck, Harkness Memorial, Bluff Point or one of the region’s other state parks, forests and wildlife management areas, consider this: These public lands lack the “truly permanent protections” needed to ensure they aren’t “unpreserved” when developers or towns propose land swap deals.
So says “Preserved But Maybe Not,” a report released last week by the state Council on Environmental Quality, a state agency charged with recommending changes to improve state environmental laws. The report describes four recent proposals in which portions of state park and forest land would have been carved out for other purposes, one of which – the transfer of 8 acres at Hammonassett Beach State Park in Madison for a town park – was approved by the state legislature last year over the objections of several grass-roots conservation groups.
Another proposal, for the transfer of a portion of the Clarke Creek Wildlife Management Area in Had-dam to a hotel developer for 87 acres of upland forest, was approved by the legislature in 2011, but later repealed because the appraised value of the forest land was far below that of the Clarke Creek property.
“These proposals are fairly common,” Karl Wagener, executive director of CEQ, said Monday. “Most of them do not come to fruition, but the door is always open.”
Wagener said the report was created in response to several complaints from state residents about the lack of consistency and transparency when land swap deals are proposed. Nine recommendations in the report would strengthen permanent protections of future acquisitions, streamline and standardize the evaluation of a parcel’s conservation value, and enhance public notification and participation when swaps are proposed, among other changes.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the report said, should have a conceptual management plan and a data sheet for each of its parks, forests and wildlife areas, so would-be developers would quickly understand the conservation value of particular parcels before making a proposal. It would also “dissuade many landowners from proposing exchanges.”
“An uncounted but significant amount of (DEEP) staff time was expended to conduct research and reach a conclusion that should have been self evident,” the report states, referring to a 2012 proposal from a wind farm developer to swap 11 acres of commercially zoned land for 140 acres in Nipmuck State Forest in Ashford.
State Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Conservation Commission, said he has been working with a coalition of environmental groups on legislation that would accomplish many of the same goals as the report’s recommendations. It will be introduced in the session that will begin Feb. 5.
“State land conveyances are often a deep secret passed on the last night of the session, without a public hearing,” Meyer said. “These groups have asked for a bill to bring transparence and openness to state land conveyance.”
After the Haddam land transfer was approved, he said, he received about a dozen letters from families who had donated land to the state for conservation, but said they would never do so again because they were so dismayed about the recent turn of events.
The bill, he said, “would bring some trust back, and help restore confidence.”
The CEQ report also recommends an amendment to the state constitution, modeled after one in New York state, that would raise the bar for the steps the state Legislature would be required to complete before a land swap could occur. Meyer said he doesn’t believe an amendment is necessary.
Among the goals of the bill, said Sandy Breslin, director of government affairs for Audubon Connecticut, would be to clarify that the commissioner of DEEP has the authority to place conservation restrictions on current and future state park and forest lands. Audubon Connecticut is one of five groups in the coalition working with Meyer on the bill.
Another of the groups is the Connecticut Forest & Park Association. Eric Hammerling, CFPA executive director, said his group will lobby on behalf of the bill.
“This is at the top of our conservation agenda,” he said. “In most instances, there is nothing on the land records to protect these public lands for the purposes for which they were originally acquired.”
Eileen Grant, president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said she was particularly dismayed after the Hammonassett land swap and said the episode shows the vulnerability of state park lands.
“It’s going to be a persistent problem,” she said. Her group, she said, did not learn about the proposed swap “until it was too late.” When state park and forest land is swapped, she said, it erodes support for state parks that the Friends’ groups and other volunteers provide.
“Our mission is preservation, and to put our resources into parks and have them up for grabs is very upsetting,” she said. “The general public would just be shocked to know how vulnerable these lands are.”
None of the proponents of the bill said they wanted to foreclose entirely on the possibility of all land swaps. In some cases, a swap could enhance the conservation value of state lands. Graham Stevens, director of the DEEP’s office of constituent affairs and land management, agreed.
“In some instances, the proposals are for better land,” he said.
DEEP, he added, “has no plans to sell off state parks and forests” or to swap lands of high conservation and recreational value for those of lesser value. The agency “is fully supportive” of the CEQ’s recommendations, Stevens said, but believes that swap proposals thus far handled within the agency have been handled appropriately. It has no control, however, over proposals that go directly to the legislature.
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