Local lawmakers react to Lower Merion School District power play
A trio of Montgomery County lawmakers today applauded unanimous committee approval of their bill to limit the use of eminent domain on land that has been set aside as green space or open space.
House Bill 2468 was introduced in response to recent efforts by the Lower Merion School District to use eminent domain to take land from the 42-acre Stoneleigh Garden and use it to construct a new middle school, say the bill’s prime sponsors: Reps. Warren Kampf (R-Montgomery/Chester), Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery) and Kate Harper (R-Montgomery), according to a press release .
“Unfortunately, a local school district is just the latest example of a government agency using eminent domain to take land that is intended to be protected from development in perpetuity through a conservation easement,” said Harper, who chairs the House Local Government Committee that approved the bill on Tuesday. “There is a time and place to use eminent domain; this is not it.”
Kampf said the legislation is designed to provide assurances to people who are considering donating their land for open space that their wishes will be honored, and to the public, which rightfully expects land under conservation easement to be protected.
“The public outcry at this case, as well as a similar situation in central Pennsylvania, is certainly warranted and must be addressed,” Kampf said. “This bill would set a far higher standard, similar to that already in place for protected agricultural lands, to ensure the protection of our valued open space.”
The bill would amend the Eminent Domain Code to add a new section requiring any government agency to obtain Orphans’ Court approval before using eminent domain to take permanently preserved land. The procedure is similar to that found in the Agricultural Area Security Law, which requires additional scrutiny before condemnation of agricultural lands. The Orphans’ Court is given authority in the Donated and Dedicated Property Act over certain transactions related to publicly owned lands held for public uses.
“The use of eminent domain really should be the option of last resort in situations like these,” said Toepel. “A change in the law will help ensure that is the case, better protecting our open space for generations to come.”
The bill was amended in committee to make it effective immediately, add a severability clause and make the provisions of the legislation applicable to any declaration of taking filed since Jan. 1, 2018.
The bill now goes to the full House for its consideration.