06/22/2017

Supreme Court Decision Supports Protection of Dedicated Park Lands

A big win for parks! 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, in a unanimous decision, that a municipality cannot grant easements on dedicated park lands that would principally serve private purposes, and that the state’s lifting of Project 70 restrictions on dedicated park lands does not pave the way for a municipal owner to sell those public lands for development.  The case concerned the Borough of Downingtown’s attempt to sell a local municipal park, Kardon Park, for conversion into a private housing development.

Adopting the rock-solid, reasonable arguments made by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association and others in defense of protecting our public parks, the Court ruled that:

  • First, a municipality that dedicates public land as a park holds that land in trust for the public interest. A municipality cannot grant easements or other interests in public park properties to serve primarily private purposes, such as to accommodate storm water flow from a private housing development.  The uses of the land must serve the public interest.
  • Second, a municipality cannot sell off park land just because the General Assembly lifts state Project 70 restrictions. The Court held that in order to sell the park, the municipality must satisfy the requirements of the Donated or Dedicated Property Act (DDPA), which states that the continued use of the dedicated property  as a park must be “no longer practicable or possible and ceased to serve the public interest” for the public use to be abandoned.

Andrew Loza, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, praised the decision: “It’s important to understand that governments do not own parks; rather, they hold parks in trust for the park’s owners – the public.”

The Court ruled that it is the responsibility of the local Orphans’ Court to decide whether local municipalities have met the standard that would allow it to abandon their trustee responsibilities to maintain the dedicated property as a park, even where that land was partially purchased with Project 70 funds.

PennFuture Senior Attorney Kurt Weist, who represented PALTA before the Supreme Court, noted that the Orphans’ Court has already ruled that the parcels that make up that portion of Kardon Park purchased with the help of Project 70 funds continue to serve the public interest and cannot be abandoned under the DDPA.

The Court sent an issue regarding parkland acquired through eminent domain back to the lower Common Pleas Court for further proceedings. 

The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association has a lengthy track record of successfully defending Pennsylvania’s parks in the General Assembly and the courts. The Association appreciates its partnership with PennFuture, which provided legal services, and the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society, which joined PALTA in this latest effort.
 

Contact:

Stephanie Rex, Director of Communications, PennFuture, rex@pennfuture.org