Jurisdictions should be purchasing open space


February 13, 1993|By TOM HORTON

We could stop worrying about the governor's and the legislature's ongoing neglect of Maryland's once-proud Program Open Space if:

* The state's population stopped growing.

* The trend toward sprawl development reversed itself.

* Our remaining farmland, forests and wetlands proved expendable.

Since those things aren't likely to happen, we do need to worry about Program Open Space, a national model when it began in 1969. The genius of POS was that it tied the pace of development statewide to the pace at which we acquired natural areas for parks, recreation and hunting.

One-half of 1 percent of Maryland's transfer tax on every sale of

property was tapped as the funding source for the open space program. The faster land was getting developed, and the more land cost, the faster money would build up to preserve land forever from development.

We're talking substantial money here. By 1991, POS had spent more than half a billion dollars and acquired some 150,000 acres, or nearly 240 square miles.

And acreage alone can't describe the beauty and diversity owed to the program: the state's second highest waterfall, in Harford County; near-wilderness terrain in Western Maryland, for hiking and hunting; miles of pristine river shoreline on the Eastern Shore.

But there is so much more the program could have done -- should have done -- had Maryland not weakened it in 1984, and virtually gutted it in the last few years.

POS has effectively "lost" more than $250 million and fallen short of its official goal, preserving 10 percent of Maryland, by a whopping 105,000 acres.

And that goal understates the failure. The goal was based on Maryland's 6.3 million acres being 10 percent developed by 1990, but the percentage is closer to 15.

Nor did the original goal, mainly recreation-oriented, envision the heightened importance we now attach to open space -- as a pollution filter, as a refuge for rare and endangered species, as greenways for both people and wildlife, and as a way to preserve farmland.

It was in 1984 that the state capped the program at $24 million a year, with any excess being siphoned off to general funds. Environmental groups protested only mildly because the change coincided with passage of heralded legislation to restore Chesapeake Bay.

There was no commensurate capping of development pressure. Statewide, residential building permits spurted from 20,000 in 1980 to 42,000 in 1985. (Since 1989 they have fallen from 40,000 to 25,000 because of the recession, but they now appear to be picking up again.)

Finally, in 1990, the cap was lifted, with a phase-in to full funding by 1996; but the legislature proceeded to simply raid most of the transfer-tax money, to ease the state's budget crisis. (Some bond authority was given to POS in partial atonement, but the power has been used sparingly). Meanwhile, since 1981, Maryland's share of federal land-acquisition money has fallen from $3.3 million to barely a tenth of that.

Now, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to postpone the full uncapping of the transfer tax monies another two years, until 1998; and another legislative raid on the program appears a done deal. Some legislators now say candidly that Program Open Space will never be restored to full funding.

That would be a tragedy not only for natural areas but also for Maryland's farm community, which has effectively lost tens of millions of dollars since 1984. The money, under a program once considered a national model, went to buy farmers' development rights, thus preserving the land while allowing farm families to keep working it.

This program, which has preserved about 98,000 of the state's 2.3 million farm acres, was just beginning to take off in 1990. But shifting the funds elsewhere hurt hundreds of farmers who had gone through the lengthy process of qualifying for preservation money.

Frankly, an excellent, statewide growth-management plan, limiting development mostly to existing population centers, would reduce the need to restore Program Open Space. But such plans exist more on paper than in reality.

Meanwhile, legislators who don't support restoration of the program are shortchanging the future big time -- not just water quality and agriculture, but the livability and charm of a rapidly suburbanizing state.

Our environmental progress has been characterized as "upstream at four knots, but the current's running at five." Program Open Space for once tied preservation to development, progress upstream to the current downstream. The neglect of POS is one more reason we are still playing catch-up.

There is one major change that should be made whether the program gets full funding or not. Over the years, local governments have been allowed to spend more open-space money on projects only marginally connected to preserving land.

Local expenditures, which amount to nearly half of the program's annual budget, include athletic complexes, skating rinks and even a minor league ballpark.

This does broaden political support, but POS never was intended as a public works program. Except for a couple of counties with huge holdings of public land, all jurisdictions in the state, including Baltimore City, should concentrate on purchasing open space.

* William P. Jensen, Maryland's tidewater fisheries administrator, complained that last week's column misrepresented him as playing politics with respect to regulating crabs and rockfish.

I agree that I should have called to get his side of things. I didn't, and I apologize for that.

Mr. Jensen's view is that in a recent meeting with legislators he did nothing to encourage speculation that declines in the crab harvest could be caused by too-strong conservation of rockfish.

He notes that results of studies countering this speculation were published by his agency in a newspaper circulated to watermen, many of whom would like to think that catching more rockfish, not regulating crabbers, is the key to conserving crabs.

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