Maryland environmentalists are watching with dismay as their 1990 victory to obtain more money for parkland appears to be slipping away this year.
State officials have proposed deep cuts in parkland funds in recent months in an effort to balance the deficit-ridden budgets for fiscal years 1991 and 1992.
Without more state money for parkland, environmental activist Mary Rosso fears, Maryland could lose open land to development.
"I think you're going to see lots and lots of land gobbled up by developers, and the land will be gone forever," the Glen Burnie resident said.
Their cuts come just a year after the General Assembly agreed to gradually lift the cap on money for the program, which receives funds from a real estate transfer tax.
The cuts would affect the state's and counties' plans to buy and develop parkland throughout Maryland under Program Open Space.
In Baltimore, residents will find open-space funds used for parks and recreation programs. A city official has warned that steep reductions could jeopardize the planned rehabilitation of neighborhood playgrounds.
State officials cut $28 million to balance the current year's budget, and legislators have proposed cuts ranging from $18 million to $23 million for the budget year that begins July 1.
However, there is still time for money to be added for Program Open Space, which has received almost $40 million annually in recent years. The program appears likely to benefit from lawmakers' willingness to consider sending some borrowed funds its way, although probably not as much as money as was cut. The General Assembly has not yet approved a final budget for the 1992 fiscal year.
Del. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, and Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, are trying to convince their colleagues that parkland should be bought with borrowed money. They hope borrowing will help offset the effect of 1991 and 1992 budget cuts that could delay ongoing attempts to buy parkland.
Although some lawmakers are reluctant to invest in parks when other state needs could go unmet, now may be the best time to do so, program supporters say.
"A recession is the best time to buy land because it's cheaper," Rosapepe said.
At the very least, supporters argue, the longer government waits to buy undeveloped land, the more expensive it will be.
"Some people see open space as a luxury, but I don't," Rosapepe said. "The reason we need to acquire open space sooner rather than later is the state is being eaten up with sprawling development."
Currently, the state is actively negotiating with property owners for $20 million worth of projects, said Mike Nelson, assistant secretary for capital projects at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Nelson declined to identify the projects that could be jeopardized by budget cuts.
The state's long-range goals include buying land to expand various natural areas, including Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County, Patapsco Valley State Park in Anne Arundel County, Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County and Patuxent River Natural Resources Management Area in Prince George's County.
In the past five years, the state has spent an average of $10 million acquiring about 3,700 acres a year, Nelson said. Despite the budget problems, the program managed to acquire more than 3,000 acres this year, he said.
Critics say Program Open Space has not been able to spend its money as fast as it came in, accumulating large sums over time.
Nelson explained that sometimes the money to buy certain environmentally important parcels sits idle for years because negotiations with private landowners may take that long to complete. "We'd rather take our time and stretch a negotiation out over two to three years than use force," such as condemnation proceedings, Nelson said.
Many lawmakers say they are sympathetic to complaints about the reductions to Program Open Space. Yet the budget crisis makes for tough decisions that can pit human services needs against parkland programs, they say.
"Do you cut open space or do you cut kidney dialysis?" asked Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's not a hard choice. The land is going to be there. It will wait."