The Board of Public Works approved a controversial proposal yesterday to provide about $600,000 in state and federal funds to acquire a Frostburg rail depot, which houses a failed restaurant owned by a friend of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
The three-member board also gave the state Department of General Services the green light to go to court to seek condemnation of the 2,229-acre Chapman's Landing tract in Charles County to preserve it from a planned development. Gov. Parris N. Glendening previously had announced plans to use the state's power of eminent domain to protect the largely unspoiled parcel on the Potomac River.
The approval of the Frostburg purchase came after repeated delays since Glendening revealed last summer the state's intention to acquire the property.
At the time, political rivals of Taylor charged that the deal, which the speaker has actively supported, is a bailout of James J. Oberhaus, a longtime friend and political supporter.
Taylor, who contends that the transaction is in the best interests of economic development in Western Maryland, praised Glendening and other board members yesterday for having the "confidence and courage" to support the deal.
"It's terribly unfortunate that a small group of local political witch-hunters have delayed this decision for months," said the Cumberland Democrat.
But Sen. John J. Hafer, an Allegany County Republican and a rival of Taylor, said the original deal appeared to be "a lucrative buyout for Mr. Oberhaus."
Hafer, who spoke out against the transaction last year, said he supports the deal approved yesterday.
"The difference between dropping it last August and passing it today was it got totally reworked, and I had a lot to do with it," said Hafer, adding that the final terms are far less beneficial to Oberhaus.
But Taylor said it was "ludicrous" to assert that the deal has been overhauled. "It's the same identical deal. Nothing has changed," said the speaker.
Whatever changes might have been made were not enough to satisfy Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus, who called the deal "cronyism at its worst."
"This is just one more manifestation of helping out your buddy. It's unethical at best and corrupt at worst," said Bambacus, a Republican who formerly served in the state Senate.
Under the deal approved yesterday, the state will acquire the historic Frostburg Train Depot for $598,500, plus $9,000 in acquisition expenses.
The federal government will kick in $320,250 in transportation funds, while the state will spend $152,625 in Program Open Space money and lend an equal amount through the Maryland Historical Trust.
The property includes the Old Depot, a defunct restaurant owned by Oberhaus, as well as about 800 feet of rail line right of way and a train turntable. Oberhaus bought the dilapidated train station in 1987, and reportedly spent about $1.3 million buying and renovating it before putting the property up for sale last year.
Glendening said the depot and track right-of-way acquisitions were a package deal. He said the acquisitions were vital to the future of Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, an Allegany County tourist attraction that wends its way through 16 miles of mountainous territory between Cumberland and Frostburg.
But Bambacus said the state could have saved taxpayers' money by exercizing its condemnation power -- a move that would have deprived Oberhaus of much of his leverage in the deal.
Jack Cahalan, director of public affairs for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the monetary terms of the transaction had not changed since last summer but that many of the details of the arrangement had been fleshed out.
Cahalan said a widespread notion held that the state intended to operate a subsidized restaurant at the expense of local competitors. He maintained that was never the state's intent. "There was a misunderstanding back in July and August," he said.
According to Taylor, the scenic railroad's board has contracted with Marriott Corp. to provide food services to passengers this year. He said the contract will be put up for bid each year after that.
The board's decision to authorize condemnation of the Chapman's Landing tract comes after developer Edward F. Podboy's decision last month to begin clearing ground for a controversial planned community with an eventual population of 12,000.
Glendening's allies in the environmental movement have made the preservation of Chapman's Landing one of their highest priorities. Negotiations for the voluntary sale of the property collapsed April 2 when the state and Podboy's Legend Properties could not agree on a price.
The governor said the authorization does not mean the state would rush into court to initiate condemnation action. He instructed General Services Secretary Eugene R. Lynch to continue negotiations with the developer.
Glendening said the developer's land-clearing was an example of "rattling the sabers."
"We also have some weapons in our arsenal, and this is one of those," the governor said.
Pub Date: 4/16/98