The Pennsylvania House soundly rejected Tuesday legislation that could have led to state parks with privately developed and run hotels and even amusement parks.
The proposal failed on a 77-123 vote, despite the sponsor offering a significantly watered down version of the bill late Monday.
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. The measure had cleared two of the three required votes in the House.
Foundation President Marci Mowery called the amended 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 from Butler County, did not respond Tuesday to a request 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 the authority of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to approve or reject privately developed and operated park amenities, giving 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. Under a “pilot” process, the department would have to select a private consultant to evaluate the state parks. The consultant would have been tasked with recommending parks where a “public-private project” could develop amenities that would benefit “the general public.”
Former DCNR chief John Oliver, who served under Republican former Gov. Tom Ridge, opposed the 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 had pointed to neighboring Ohio and West Virginia in a statement issued as he introduced the bill. He noted that both states “have sizeable lodging facilities, conference centers and golfing.”
A number of Ohio and West Virginia state parks have large lodges with golf courses. Ohio, for example, has golf courses at six of its eight parks with large lodges. Neither system has parks with amusement rides, however.
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 AAA four-diamond resort rating.
West Virginia’s Pipestem Resort State Park and Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center have comparatively modest, state owned lodges, dating from the 1960s and 1970s.
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.
(Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated that there are no golf courses in Ohio parks. Bay Journal regrets the error.)