The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association offers, for public review and use, a new set of model documents with commentary to help local governments formally dedicate lands to public purposes including providing public access for outdoor recreation and providing open space benefits. In 2017, the Association released initial drafts for public review. This new set addresses the public comments received during the review period.
People rely on their parks and other public open spaces as stable, reliable places of comfort, rest, and renewal in their lives. They expect that these places will always be there for them. In Pennsylvania, this expectation is supported by the Pennsylvania Constitution, centuries of common law, and statutes enacted by the General Assembly.
In the absence of a formal government dedication, there can be gray area in determining whether land owned by local government is truly parkland or other open space held in trust for the public. And even with a formal dedication, there can be questions as to whether a particular government action affecting the land is allowable.
To reduce risks of confusion, misunderstanding, or ill will among citizens regarding acceptable and non-acceptable uses of land held by a municipality or county, the local government may want to make a practice of formally dedicating lands it intends to hold in trust for the public and, at that time, explicitly stating any reservations, exceptions, or limitations applicable to the dedication. The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association has prepared the following model legal documents to help governments accomplish this:
- Model Declaration of Public Trust [basic form]. By signing and recording the declaration, the local government permanently dedicates the land to certain public purposes. It is the shortest and simplest of the three alternatives.
- Model Declaration of Public Trust [expanded form]. This alternative expands on the basic form, providing options to exclude portions of the land from the dedication and detail the activities, uses, facilities, and improvements that are considered consistent with the public purposes.
- Model Declaration of Public Trust and Grant of Conservation Easement. This alternative builds on the expanded form. It grants to a land trust or other conservation organization an interest in the property—a conservation easement—that empowers the party to uphold the public purposes of the dedication and enforce its covenants should the need arise in the future. It provides an additional layer of assurance that the public purposes set forth in the declaration will be respected in perpetuity.
Local governments can apply these models to advance any one or more of the following objectives:
- Unambiguously dedicate land as a public natural resource;
- Clearly exclude certain property interests from the dedication (e.g., a location for a future maintenance garage, salt dome, or administration building);
- Ensure the character of the land is not dramatically changed (e.g., replacing century-old woodland and walking trails with tennis courts); or
- Support an argument to the county assessment board that the land is actually and regularly used for public purposes and thus exempt from taxation.