Budget imperils Open Space, critics charge

February 24, 1991|By Joel McCord

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to help balance the state budget with $40 million set aside for parkland purchases and agricultural preservation threatens those programs with extinction, environmentalists fear.

"We're faced with the gutting of the entire program," Christopher Rigby, land conservation coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, fretted last week.

"What this means is the state's land acquisition program has shut down," complained Wayne Klockner, state director of the Nature Conservancy for Maryland, which has negotiated land deals for the Department of Natural Resources.

"We've had to let a number of opportunities go because we don't have the funds; the state doesn't have the funds."

Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation launched a series of radio and newspaper advertisements warning readers and listeners to "act now" or "there may not be another acre of new state parkland."

But John Griffin, deputy secretary of natural resources, called their fears "too much Chicken Little."

"It will be a question of when, not whether, this land will be purchased," he said. "A lot of it is in existing state parks, and there is not an overwhelming threat to properties in state forests."

As part of his plan to balance this year's budget, Governor Schaefer has proposed taking $23 million from the state's Program Open Space fund for buying parkland. In addition, he wants to cut $17 million from a fund to preserve agricultural land.

Environmentalists concede that the state faces tough economic times and that each program should do its share to help. But they argue that the open space and agricultural preservation programs, budgeted at $39 million and $23 million respectively, are being forced to carry an undue burden.

Even more galling, they say, is that this comes in the year when a cap on the Open Space fund was to be lifted.

The program, created in 1969, is financed with a half-percent tax on real estate transfers.

But in 1984, state officials capped the program at $24 million and began using the transfer tax revenue for other state programs. Since then, the cap has been raised to $39 million.

Last year, the General Assembly agreed to lift the cap gradually until the fund received all of the transfer tax revenue.

"Now, while we're restoring the program to what it was, the real estate market has slowed down, the transfer tax is not raising what it did five or six years ago, and they want to take more money," Mr. Klockner said.

"It creates a necessary but unfortunate delay in programs," countered Mike Nelson, assistant secretary for capital projects in the Department of Natural Resources. "But the priorities will remain the same. We'll be focusing on area where development pressure is the greatest. And in areas where it isn't so great, we may delay projects."

Much of the land the department is planning to purchase would fill in gaps in ownership within projected state park boundaries. Those boundaries, Mr. Nelson said, will not change.

The state has already has bought 16,083 acres of land in the Patapsco Valley State Park in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties and has its eye on another 2,782 acres along the stream bed.

Statewide, the Department of Natural Resources has acquired more than 400,000 acres of land within projected park boundaries and wants to add about 86,000 more acres. The department also is 100,000 acres behind in goals for total land purchases, Mr. Nelson acknowledged.

But the sluggish economy that is creating the state deficit should be seen as an opportunity to pick up land at bargain prices, Mr. Rigby said, suggesting that the state float bonds to cover land purchases and then use transfer tax money to repay them.

"Real estate values are going up faster than interest on bonds," he said. "So it would be a bargain to do it now, before the land gets any more expensive or is converted to other uses."

State Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, has introduced two bond bills designed to replace the money the governor wants to transfer from the Open Space fund.

"It's hard to fight the transfer because the budget wouldn't be balanced without it," he conceded.

"But it disturbs me because whenever there's a budget shortfall, they dig into Open Space money," he added.

Mr. Winegrad predicted "a decent chance" of getting one bond bill approved but doubted that it would bring in money to equal what was being cut.

Meanwhile, the radio ad campaign continues, accusing legislators of "dipping into the [Open Space] fund and spending your money on other things" and challenging listeners to stop them.

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