Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Restricts Sale of Parklands

July 26, 2017
Montgomery McCracken

Types : Bylined Articles

This article was authored by Brandon Matsnev, a summer associate with Montgomery McCracken.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Borough of Downingtown v. Friends of Kardon Park, in which Downingtown and some of its residents clashed over Downingtown’s attempt to sell Kardon Park to private developers. The decision is a rarity for the Court, which seldom hears issues related to parklands. In ruling against Downingtown, the Court imposed restrictions on municipalities that wish to sell land dedicated for recreational use.

Kardon Park is comprised of different parcels of land totaling 48 acres, all of which Downingtown acquired in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, it purchased the “Northern Parcels”—the land at the center of the controversy—in part with funds provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act (“Project 70”). Project 70 allows municipalities to borrow up to fifty percent of the cost of purchasing parkland. These funds are conditioned on the municipality’s imposing a covenant on the subject land specifying that the land must be used for “recreation, conservation, and historical purposes.” Under the Act, the state legislature must expressly approve any contrary use.

Downingtown recently attempted to sell the parkland to private developers and was met with litigation—despite the fact that the legislature had lifted the Project 70 restrictions in 2012. Downingtown executed  a purchase agreement with developers whereby, among other dispositions, Downingtown would provide the developers with easements over the Northern Parcels. In response, Borough residents sued seeking declarative and injunctive relief to prevent the sale.

The Court considered many legal issues, the most important of which was the interaction between the Project 70 Act and the Donated or Dedicated Property Act (“DDPA”). The DDPA provides that when a municipality dedicates a space for public use, it creates a trust for the property in which the municipality is the trustee and the public is the beneficiary. Under the statute, a municipality must ask a court to release it from its obligations as a trustee. The main issue was whether Downingtown had free reign to dispose of the property given that the legislature had already lifted Project 70 restrictions. The Court answered in the negative; Downingtown still needed court approval per the DDPA.

To reach this conclusion, the Court considered what constitutes a “dedication” to public use such that the DDPA requirements, namely court approval of a sale, are triggered. The Court found that “it is the dedication of a property to public use as a public facility, not the stated purpose for its acquisition by the municipality … which is the pivotal factor which brings the property within the protective ambit of the DDPA.” Downingtown dedicated the Northern Parcels to public use as a park by spending money to make permanent improvements on it over the course of two decades; consequently, it needed court approval—in addition to legislative approval under Project 70—to hand the park over to developers.

The takeaway from this important ruling is not necessarily that the Court saved public parks; rather, municipalities, in certain instances, must get the approval of both the legislature and the courts before selling parks to private developers. This, the Court found, would ensure that the public’s interest in parklands will be protected.