Bay Journal

Pennsylvania parks development bill not dead yet

Reconsideration possible; Gov. Tom Wolf supports measure

  • By Jeff Day on June 30, 2016
Legislation would allow for private development of hotels, golf courses and other amenities in Pennsylvania's state parks. (Karl Blankenship)

Bill to Allow Private Development in Pa. State Parks Could be Revived

Legislation that would open the door to private development in Pennsylvania parks may get another life, even though it was killed earlier this week.

The Pennsylvania House on Tuesday voted 123-77 to reject a bill that would have allowed development of hotels, golf courses and even amusement rides in the state’s 121 parks.

However, under House procedures, the bill sponsor has up to five days to ask for a revote.

If it does get reconsidered, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman said Thursday that the administration supports privately built and operated hotels and recreational facilities in state parks if the development is in keeping with the mission of the system.

The bill that lawmakers rejected would have established a “pilot” process under which the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources could approve private facilities in parks -- if the development would both benefit the general public and be consistent with DCNR’s mission.

The agency would first have had to select a consultant to evaluate and recommend parks where private investment could result in facilities that would benefit the general public. DCNR would then decide which if any of the projects were consistent with its mission to protect and preserve the natural landscape.

Before Tuesday’s vote, several bill opponents, including Rep. Stephen McCarter, a Democrat representing Philadelphia’s northeastern suburbs, cited language in the state constitution requiring the preservation and protection of the state’s natural landscape for future generations.

The bill alarmed the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation and numerous environmental groups.

Foundation President Marci Mowery called the bill “a frontal assault on Pennsylvania’s state park system.”  She suggested that there are already abundant opportunities in Pennsylvania to go to amusement parks, water parks, and golf courses.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Brian Ellis, a Republican representing Butler County, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in introducing the bill, he had argued that Pennsylvania lags behind other states in offering modern accommodations.

Co-sponsoring Rep. Paul Costa, a Republican representing Allegheny County near Pittsburgh, argued just before the final vote that while privately developed and operated state park facilities are not needed at many parks, they would be helpful at some.

As introduced, the bill would have stripped away DCNRs authority to approve or reject privately developed and operated park facilities and given that responsibility to a new public-private state park partnership board.

However, the bill was amended Monday to give DCNR a role and delete the proposed board.

Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary, made it clear Thursday that the Democratic governor still supports the legislation.

The bill could be amended before the revote. Asked about this, Sheridan said, “We would still want to ensure that any new development in the state parks is in keeping with DCNR’s mission and planning for the park system.”

The administration would also want the “same language that would have helped DCNR identify and evaluate opportunities which may exist to establish additional recreational and lodging facilities for the benefit of the general public,” Sheridan said.

Former DCNR chief John Oliver, who served under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, opposed the original bill. He signed a letter stating that the proposal “has been rejected by past administrations as bad policy that didn’t make environmental or economic sense.

“Our state lands have been painstaking built and protected by over a century of public investment; they are treasured by the citizens of Pennsylvania,” said the letter signed by Oliver, Mowery and Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The state has 121 state parks, two of which have golf courses, one built in the 19th century and one in the 1920s. It has several ski areas. One state park has a small, somewhat pricey inn, DCNR spokesman Terry Brady said. The parks collectively occupy almost 300,000 acres.

Ellis pointed to neighboring Ohio and West Virginia.  He noted that both states “have sizeable lodging facilities, conference centers and golfing.”

While a number of Ohio and West Virginia state parks have large lodges and golf courses, the park systems do not amusement parks.

West Virginia has large lodging facilities in three of its state parks, one of which is private developed and managed. The Stonewall Resort, in Stonewall Jackson State Park, features an Arnold Palmer-branded golf course and carries a AAA four-diamond resort rating.

West Virginia’s Pipestem Resort State Park and Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center, both state-developed and state-owned, have golf courses, and Canaan Valley includes downhill ski area.  

Sam England, chief of West Virginia parks and recreation, said he strongly prefers state ownership of park lodging facilities, with concessionaires running specified operations.  That makes it much easier, he said, to align the lodging operations with the fundamental purposes of state parks.

 

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About Jeff Day
Jeff Day covered government policy developments for more than 20 years at Bloomberg BNA, including Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts since 2009. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Jeff Day

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