Open space fund, grants paying for Shore land

Money from transfer tax, foundation's program to help buy parcels

August 04, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

If you bought or sold land in the past year, chances are you are contributing to the state's acquisition of vast tracts of wetland and forest on the Eastern Shore to protect them from development. The deal, made public yesterday, is expected to be completed this month.

Funds for the state's share in purchasing the 58,000 acres from the Virginia-based Chesapeake Forest Products Co. -- $16.5 million -- are coming from Program Open Space, a seemingly endless source of cash used to buy land to protect it from development.

The program, financed with one-half of 1 percent of the state's transfer tax, was created in 1969 in hopes of purchasing 10 percent of the state's land for preservation. The Chesapeake Forest Products land, in parcels scattered across five lower Shore counties, amounts to 1 percent of the state's total acreage.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that the deal "has not been signed, sealed and delivered," but that he is "optimistic we will get this one done."

He said enough money in the Program Open Space fund exists to buy the land without compromising other projects.

The state had $51 million left over from the last fiscal year, according to Chip Price, the program's associate director.

Price said the Program Open Space fund rises and falls with the real estate market, but it has contained about $80 million annually during the past few years.

The program was used recently to buy Chapman's Landing, a fragile 2,225 acre waterfront parcel in Southern Maryland; the Smith Farm, a 300-acre farm in Columbia; and the Mercer farm, 364 acres in Carroll County near Sykesville.

The Conservation Fund, a private, nonprofit group in Arlington, Va., specializing in environmental preservation, helped broker the Chapman's Landing deal, as well as the Chesapeake Forest Products purchase.

Chesapeake signed a letter of intent in April to sell 278,000 acres in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, including its Eastern Shore holdings, to the Hancock Timber Resource Group, a subsidiary of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, for $186 million.

Hancock Timber then approached the Conservation Fund, offering to sell all of its Eastern Shore lands -- 76,000 acres -- for preservation.

"We sought them out because we thought the Eastern Shore has a lot of properties in the mix that are environmentally sensitive and should be in public hands," said Daniel P. Christensen, president of Hancock Timber.

The Conservation Fund contacted the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which agreed to contribute to half of Maryland's portion of the purchase under an agreement allowing part of the land to remain in forestry.

The Conservation Fund will purchase the land for $33 million, using the contributions of $16.5 million each from the state and the Mellon Foundation. The fund will turn over roughly half the land to the state immediately. The foundation will give the state the remaining land within a year, subject to conditions allowing sustainable timber harvesting to continue.

The Conservation Fund also is brokering deals to sell Chesapeake Forest Products lands in Delaware and Virginia. Hancock will retain more than 200,000 acres on Virginia's western shore that it will use "primarily for sustainable forestry," Christensen said.

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