Public works board approves conditional grant to buy farm Ethics commission must rule on possible conflict

November 11, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Concerned about a possible conflict of interest, the state Board of Public Works approved a $150,000 state grant yesterday for the purchase of a 138-acre farm near Glyndon, pending a review by the State Ethics Commission.

A group of investors this summer raised money to buy and preserve the farm, which Bonnie View Country Club had been eyeing for a golf course. After inquiries by The Sun, the board asked the ethics commission to review the dual role of John C. Bernstein, who is director of the state's Maryland Environmental Trust and one of the investors in the farm deal.

"There is a possibility of a conflict," said John Surrick, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR oversees the environmental trust, which is dedicated to land preservation.

"While we think this is an excellent transaction we want to ask [the ethics committee] if they perceive any problem with it before we pay money for this property," Surrick said.

The property has been in the spotlight since a group of Baltimore County environmentalists, known as Speedway Partners Limited Liability Co., sought to purchase and preserve it with an easement as a way to thwart the relocation of Bonnie View, which for years has sought a more rural setting. The club is on Smith Avenue in Mount Washington.

In September, the group of environmentalists -- which was $150,000 short of the $945,000 purchase price -- turned to the Maryland Environmental Trust for a grant. The money would be repaid through the sale of either the property's development rights or the property itself, said John C. Murphy, a Baltimore attorney and MET board member.

Bernstein said Monday he recused himself from board discussions concerning the grant and was not in the room when the board voted on the request in early October.

Murphy, a member of MET's finance committee that recommended that the grant be awarded, said the committee was aware that Bernstein was a $10,000 investor in the farm.

"It's laudatory that he's active personally in land preservation as well as that being his official job," Murphy said.

Eleanor Kelly, a MET board member who voted for the grant, said: "It's a decent piece of land we can save for the interim -- it's a good situation."

The state ethics code provides a variety of restrictions for state employees, John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the commission, said yesterday. He said he could not comment on the pending review of the MET grant.

In September, the deal sparked a squabble that led to the eviction of the Valleys Planning Council from its Towson offices by its landlord, a local real estate agent who was trying to broker the Bonnie View move. Some of the council's board members had helped put together the group of investors seeking to purchase the farm.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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