An Act preserving open space in the Commonwealth (H.5381) will become effective February 17, 2023 for lands subject to Article 97. Also known as the Public Lands Preservation Act (PLPA), the legislation was proposed over 20 years ago when the proponents of the PLPA first sought to codify a 1998 “No Net Loss” by the secretary of energy and environment as a more permanent and enforceable statutory law. But, sometimes the value and replacement requirements weren’t followed and completed. In some cases, it has been impossible to determine if replacement land of any sort was obtained.
The PLPA will close those gaps in the process and the public can engage with the official process when their public land is disposed of or changed.
As a concession, necessary to passing this legislation, if no comparable replacement land can be identified, a proposal can still be realized if settlement monies are provided (cash in lieu of replacement land). But those funds must be expended for land at least 110% greater in market value and equal to or greater in resource value compared with land taken. The replacement land must also be found and acquired at a nearby location and the replacement land shall be dedicated to conservation in perpetuity under Article 97.
What is Article 97?
Approved by voters in 1972, Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution enshrines our rights to a clean and healthy environment. It also authorizes the Commonwealth to acquire land for the purpose of placing it under conservation easements and protecting those open spaces. Learn more here.
With the PLPA enactment, public entities looking to repurpose Article 97 land must notify the secretary of energy and environmental affairs and the public. They must then conduct and publicize an analysis that defines whether it is feasible to dedicate replacement land or if they need to provide funding in lieu of the replacement land, a so-called “cash in lieu” settlement. and such settlements will require approval by the secretary of energy and environmental affairs to ensure the proposed action will not harm the health of Massachusetts residents and that the change serves the common good.
“As others have already said, this is a “first of its kind” law in all of the United States,” said Steve Engel, chair of Friends of the Fells Advocacy Committee and Friends of the Fells board member. “The idea of a PLPA was brought to Friends of the Fells by its originator, Phil Saunders, whose insight and passionate, seemingly relentless advocacy to preserve public open land inspired many, many others. We saw that a PLPA would be a natural fit with our desires to protect and enjoy the natural beauty of the Fells. It took real stick-to-it-ive-ness by many supporters across the Commonwealth to accomplish this.”
Persistent work from environmental and land conservation organizations in partnership with municipal and state public officials has led to this victory for the Commonwealth and its public spaces. It will serve us all well to be vigilant about how our official business is accomplished with regard to Article 97 land to preserve our legacy for future generations.