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June 28, 2016

Should Pennsylvania allow water parks, golf courses in state parks?

Bill would pave way for more private development

New Legislation could allow Pennsylvania's state parks to look more like vacation resorts.

House Bill 2013 would pave the way for more private development in state parks. That includes hotels, restaurants, golf courses, amusement and water parks, swimming pools and other recreational facilities. It was sent to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday and could go to a floor vote this week.

While the bill is facing a backlash from the environmental community, its sponsor has defended the proposed law as catching up with the rest of the country, as other states allow similar types of development. State Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, told why he introduced the legislation:

Ellis introduced the bill as a way to enhance recreational opportunities in the state parks without the taxpayers having to incur the cost associated with it, he said.

While he doesn't suggest that all parks be home to a privately operated recreational or hospitality business, he said there are parks in underserved areas of the state that could benefit from having golf courses, amusement parks, water parks, restaurants, hotels, inns and other outdoor sports facilities in keeping with DCNR's (Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) mission located inside them.

The bill has been scaled back after Ellis negotiated with Gov. Tom Wolf's office. Initially, he sought to establish a public-private state park partnership board to oversee new projects. Now, the bill has been amended to instead initially set up a pilot program to study the feasibility of more private development in state parks.

There are already a handful of private businesses allowed in some state parks, StateImpact notes, but Pennsylvania's park-goers aren't necessarily looking for more commercial forms of entertainment:

DCNR does allow some concessions in parks, including two golf courses, but they’re not always big money-makers. A ski resort operated by a private developer in Denton Hill State Park closed several years ago and has yet to be re-opened.

In the most recent survey of park users, conducted every five years as a requirement for federal funds, respondents ranked the three top priorities for park improvements as more rental cabins, bike lanes, and natural and wild areas.

Even with the amendment, conservationists are opposing the bill. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council said in a statement Tuesday that while the amendment makes the bill "less bad" than before, it still doesn't address a number of possible issues:

Nowhere in the amended legislation is it suggested that DCNR undertake a study or review of how the parks are working, what has worked (or not worked) in other states, or what is really best for the parks and for Pennsylvanians. Nor is there any consideration that the defined uses may well be best located on private lands adjacent to state parks, as so many businesses are today, or whether private development on state lands will lead to long term burden on the Commonwealth.

The bill could go to a vote as early as Tuesday, according to PennLive.

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