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Connecticut Voters Face Complicated Amendment Question On State Land Sales

Patrick Skahill
Connecticut Public Radio
Hammonasset Beach in Madison is one of the state's most popular plots of public land.

Voters this November won’t only be deciding on a long list of candidates for elected office. They’ll also decide two ballot questions which, for the first time in a decade, could amend the state’s constitution.

But the questions are long and hard to understand. Here’s an explanation of ballot question number two, which is about the sale of state land. If passed, it could have a major impact on the environment and government transparency.

Pamela Adams said there’s a way the sale of public land is supposed to work.

If legislators want to sell, swap, or giveaway land used owned by the state, they raise a bill and that bill gets a public hearing.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

“But oftentimes, at the end of a session,” Adams said, “some of these sales or trades or giveaways are done at the 11th hour. There is no public hearing on it. In fact, no discussion on it, in many cases.”

Adams is the co-president of The Friends of Connecticut State Parks. She spoke with me on the shores of Hammonasset Beach, one of the state’s most popular parks.

In 2013, legislators did some last-minute tweaks, packing a few lines into a bill to give away a small portion of this land to the town of Madison for free. There was no public hearing.

“Our tax dollars go into acquiring these, maintaining these,” Adams said. “To have them given away without any input just isn’t right.”

Credit Connecticut Secretary of the State
Ballot question number two is long and wordy, but could change the way state land sales are carried out.

Eric Hammerling, Executive Director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said that’s what ballot question number two is all about.

“This is a real opportunity to do things with transparency,” Hammerling said.

Hammerling, who is also volunteering on behalf of Protect CT Public Lands Coalition, said ballot question two is long and wordy, but basically, boils down to this.

“If any state lands are being proposed by the general assembly to be sold, swapped, or given away, there would have to be a public hearing first,” Hammerling said.

The amendment would also require two-thirds of both houses of the General Assembly to vote in favor before the legislature could do anything with land owned by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or the Department of Agriculture.

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Hammonasset Beach on a cold October day. In May, both chambers of the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to place ballot question number two before voters.

Past state land deals have caused controversy.  The so-called “Haddam Land Swap” is one of the best-known examples, a case where legislators proposed exchanging state land overlooking the Connecticut River with a commercial developer.

That deal fell apart in 2012, but motivated many conservationists to push for the ballot question.

Hammerling said legislators tend to prioritize the needs of their districts over those of the entire state. And that with the state’s ongoing budget crisis, the temptation to sell off public lands among legislators will only grow.

In May, members of Connecticut’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to place the land use ballot question before voters. But there was dissent. Democrat Rick Lopes from New Britain voted no, and said on the floor of the House the question will provoke “unintended consequences.”

“Because of this new language, we’re going to need a hearing. Maybe there’s not time for a hearing. We’re going to need a 2/3rd vote,” Lopes said. “Your issue’s going to become a political football.”

Bracing against the cold wind on the beach at Hammonasset, Pamela Adams said she doesn’t buy that.

“If something is a good proposal,” Adams said. “Then they should have the honesty and the fortitude to stand up in front of everyone and say what it is they would like to do and get their affirmation.”

After all, she said, this is the public’s land.

Connecticut’s election day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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