July 7, 2005
New Bills Threaten Surplus Lands and Community Rights
by John Andrews, MCHC
The fast-track auction law that took away community rights to guide the use of “surplus” state lands expired June 30. But now our newly restored rights now have to be defended against continuing legislative efforts to return power over surplus lands to the Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) or to unaccountable committees of the legislature.
Three bills are currently before the legislature. The one being pushed by DCAM is H3840 (Jones-Stanley). It gives the power to decide the use of parcels under 25 acres back to DCAM. DCAM’s recommendations for larger parcels are submitted to the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets, a committee that has been closely allied with DCAM’s revenue-generation schemes for surplus property. Their decisions would receive automatic approval unless a floor vote is taken within 75 days to disapprove their recommendation. Such a delay could occur for a variety of reasons, including behind-the-scenes pressure from the powerful developer lobby. This provision allows approval of proposals opposed by the local community without local legislators having to cast a recorded vote. In addition, Jones-Stanley bypasses the need for a local legislative sponsor for any proposal to sell surplus land. This removes a critical deterrent to proposals that go against community interests. Clearly, Jones-Stanley represents a big step backwards from the safeguards we now enjoy under Chapter 7.
The 99-year lease clause of the Jones-Stanley bill provides another cause for concern. This provision allows the state to bypass local zoning, further removing community control over development.. In addition, this provision allows land to be turned over to corporate interests without requiring them to compensate the public for the capital investment received.
A second bill (Eldridge-Resor) also takes decision-making authority away from local officials and citizens, and places decision-making power in the hands of state-level committees and regional planning authorities. Other than being a supplicant at hearings before state level authorities, the community would have no role in planning for parcels smaller than 25 acres. For larger parcels, community participation would be limited to a purely advisory committee, in which community representatives would have a minority voice. A third bill would simply reauthorize the original fast-track auction law.
It is possible that one of these bills, or a measure that combines them, could pass with little warning, locking us in to problematic policies that have not been publicly scrutinized or vetted with the communities that will be harmed by them. Concerned citizens should contact their legislators now and urge them to oppose the premature enactment of the existing surplus land bills. We need statewide hearings and ample time for public deliberation to help craft the kind of community-based, smart growth policies we deserve.