State wants role in sale of Deep Creek Glendening warns owner he'll act to protect lake

'Have to work with us'

Power plant divestiture could be delayed, he tells N.J. utility

March 14, 1998|By Peter Jensen and Thomas W. Waldron | Peter Jensen and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening notified the owners of Deep Creek Lake yesterday that he wants state participation in its impending sale and warned that he might seek legislation "or other legal means" to acquire and protect it.

In a letter faxed yesterday to GPU Inc., the New Jersey utility that owns the lake's hydroelectric plant, its bottom and its shoreline, Glendening said the state has an interest in "protecting the integrity of Deep Creek Lake."

He said he wants GPU to sell its Deep Creek assets independently from the 34 other power plants that the utility announced last month are for sale. And he warned that failure to protect the lake could not only lead to state intervention, but could delay the company's $2.6 billion divestiture nationally.

"We recognize that it is more advantageous for all concerned to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement," Glendening wrote.

Glendening's letter was the first public indication that the state is serious about protecting Western Maryland's most valuable tourist attraction. It opens up the possibility of the state buying the 100-foot-wide buffer strip that covers 90 percent of the man-made lake's 63 miles of shoreline or condemning the property if it isn't protected.

"He's making sure the utility understands he views this as important and he'll do what's necessary," said James W. Dunmyer, the Department of Natural Resources' assistant secretary for public lands.

How the state would be involved in the sale is unclear, Dunmyer said. It could, for instance, mean purchasing easements on the property or having a third party -- perhaps a conservation group -- buy the land.

The goal is essentially to maintain the status quo. "We don't want a new owner to sell off parts of the lake," Dunmyer said.

A GPU spokesman said late yesterday that the company had received the letter from Glendening. A copy was faxed to the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, which is handling the

sale for GPU.

"We appreciate the fact the governor is taking an interest in this," said Edward J. Shultz of GPU. "We will analyze his suggestions."

The lake's unsettled future has alarmed Garrett County residents, who fear a new owner might increase access fees or sell its buffer strip in parcels. Property owners around the lake have called for some form of local ownership, perhaps a partnership involving Garrett County and the state.

Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, applauded Glendening for sending the letter and keeping the state's options open, and for his willingness to involve third parties, including the county government and local property owners.

Edwards said the governor sent a useful signal when he wrote that the state was prepared to enact legislation or take legal steps to protect the long-term future of the lake.

Economic asset

"It's probably intended to let any interested parties out there know that we have an interest in this and letting them know they'll have to work with us," said Edwards. "We do have some options out there."

Deep Creek Lake is considered Garrett's most important economic asset. The land around the 12-mile-long, 3,900-acre lake accounts for more than half the county's property tax base.

The lake was created more than 70 years ago as a water source for a hydroelectric dam. Its use for public recreation was almost an afterthought -- federal licensing required it at the time.

'Major resource'

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the lake is a "major resource" for the state and deserves the governor's attention.

"I don't know if it's the right thing for the state to buy it or not," said Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat. But "before the state would determine to walk away from it, we owe it to ourselves to pursue it in depth, and I think that's the essence of the governor's statement."

Glendening has directed Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin and James T. Brady, his secretary of business and economic development, to coordinate the state's involvement in the Deep Creek sale.

GPU's divestiture plan is part of a nationwide trend. Utility companies have been putting power plants up for sale in record numbers as they prepare for increased competition.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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