Question #2 is on the ballot this year with overwhelming bipartisan support to address a real problem associated with the sale, swap and transfer of state-owned public lands.
The problem is not that the General Assembly has the authority to sell, swap and give away valuable state-owned public lands (this is done each year through a so-called public lands conveyance bill, SB 502 this year). The problem is that valuable public lands are being conveyed out of public ownership without receiving the benefit of any public input or meaningful debate. This is done by adding new public lands to the conveyance bill in the waning hours of a legislative session, with no public scrutiny.
Passing bills in the dark is not illegal and happens on other bills, but we should expect greater transparency from our government, especially when the ownership of public lands is being determined.
This year the Hartford Regional Market was transferred on the last day of the legislative session with no public input from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to the Capitol Region Development Authority (CRDA). This is not a comment on CRDA’s ability to be a good steward of this 32-acre property, but a public hearing would have allowed both the proponents and detractors of this transfer to comment publicly on its merits. Before the regional market was transferred, the largest fresh food distribution facility between Boston and New York, a public hearing would have been good public policy.
Passage of Question #2 would amend the state constitution to ensure that before state-owned public lands are sold, swapped or transferred by the General Assembly, it must 1) hold a public hearing, and 2) achieve a two-thirds vote for lands under the care and control of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (e.g., state parks, forests, wildlife management areas) or the Department of Agriculture (e.g., state-owned farmlands, or farmland easements).
A constitutional amendment is necessary because the conveyance bill uses powerful language (“Notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes …”) which overrides all existing laws, and a rules change in the Legislature would be ineffective because the rules are suspended at the end of each session to move bills through quickly. Nearby states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and New York have had provisions in their state constitutions protecting public lands in various ways for several decades.
Question #2 would only be triggered by the General Assembly requiring a transfer and does not apply to the administrative actions that state agencies are currently able to take with public lands. For example, the University of Connecticut has the ability to sell state-owned land and there is a public process to do this. A recent example of this was the sale of UConn’s campus in West Hartford. It was publicly noticed in the Environmental Monitor, the municipality was given the first right of refusal to acquire the property and then the property was ultimately sold to a private entity.
There are many opportunities for public input along the way when state agencies are doing transfers. So Question #2 was written to provide transparency where it is most lacking, at the General Assembly, and it would help ensure that when public lands are proposed to be conveyed, the public should receive a significant benefit in return. We support voting yes on Question #2 on Nov. 6.