Ehrlich says restrictions ahead for land preservation programs

Environmental groups alarmed at temporary halt, shifts in Md. policy

October 02, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his administration was calling a temporary halt to Maryland's ambitious land preservation programs until it can rewrite the rules to reflect its own priorities.

Ehrlich indicated at a meeting of the Board of Public Works that the new guidelines would be considerably more restrictive than those of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made preservation of farmland and open space a priority of his administration.

"No new items will be brought to the board prior to the implementation of the new policy," Ehrlich said.

The governor's pronouncement followed a by-now-routine denunciation of Glendening's land conservation spending by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

After the meeting Schaefer said the state's purchases of land and development rights should be restricted to "anything directly connected to the bay."

Ehrlich appeared to agree in principle - if not on the details.

"The era of secondary land purchases, given other pressures, is over," the governor said. "This is a fundamentally different administration and even if we had a billion-dollar surplus, the philosophical approaches expressed by me and the board today is the new law in town."

Aides said the new policy would focus the program more intensively on protection of the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal bays near Ocean City.

The news of the planned policy alarmed environmentalists, who have been vocal supporters of initiatives such as Program Open Space and the Glendening-era Rural Legacy and GreenPrint. All three programs are among those under review by an administration work group.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said in an interview that the state's land preservation priorities were already tightly focused. She questioned Schaefer's implication that money used to preserve nonbayfront properties was misspent.

"Protecting waterfront is very important but it is not the only important area to protect," Schmidt-Perkins said.

Theresa Pierno, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, noted that the watershed for the bay includes virtually all of the state.

"The reality is the protection of the Chesapeake Bay comes in the form of land preservation, even in Pennsylvania," she said.

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. played down the significance of the decision to halt new land deals. He said the new policy, which is being developed by officials from a half-dozen agencies, could be brought to the board as early as its next meeting Oct. 15.

DiPaula said Ehrlich's "No. 1 priority is the protection and preservation" of the Chesapeake and coastal bays.

The budget secretary indicated that the administration's vision of what constitutes bay protection is broader than Schaefer's view.

"Tributaries obviously run into the bay, and it's obviously important to protect land throughout the state," DiPaula said.

The discussion of land preservation at the board meeting yesterday centered on four tracts in Worcester County where the state had reached agreements with landowners to buy development rights to their farms and woods near Sinepuxent Bay. The deals were among those begun under the Glendening administration and still in the pipeline.

Schaefer questioned the wisdom of the purchases during a time when the state budget is facing a serious revenue shortfall.

He dropped his objections to two of the purchases after being assured they were directly on the bay or an important tributary. But he abstained on the vote to approve two other easement deals on properties about 2 miles from the water.

Department officials said those two tracts were important to creating a "greenway" linking two large preservation areas.

Ehrlich joined Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp in approving the contracts but indicated he wants future acquisitions limited to those that directly affect water quality.

Schmidt-Perkins said the land conservation programs have other important goals besides protection of the bays, including habitat protection for endangered species and preservation of farmland and recreational resources.

In recent months, Schaefer has repeatedly questioned Glendening's environmental record, suggesting that the former governor spent money on preserving land at the expense of protecting the bays.

Environmental groups have defended the former governor, saying his conservation efforts were an important part of the effort to protect water quality. In 2000, Maryland joined with other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in pledging to preserve 20 percent of their land by 2010.

Land conservation programs that were flush under the Glendening administration have taken a beating in the past year as Ehrlich has struggled with budget problems.

The Rural Legacy program, which preserved 38,314 acres from its inception in 1997 through last year, had its funds cut by more than half.

Funding for the GreenPrint program, a Glendening program that focused on protecting broad swaths of forest and wetlands as part of the state's "green infrastructure," also had its funding slashed from $16.8 million to $3 million and is scheduled to be phased out.

Program Open Space, established in 1969, provides money for Maryland's state and local parks and conservation areas. Popular with local governments, it has fared better in the budget than the other programs.

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