To the wire in land race

ON THE BAY

Nature: As the governor and legislature emphasize budgetary matters, development moves ahead of preservation.

March 05, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN THE LIFETIMES of many readers of this column, we've developed more of Maryland's rural landscape than in the three centuries after the state's founding in 1632.

Look around at what we have wrought during your daily commute and ask yourself:

What would two or three times the current development look like? How would it be to drive in? What opportunities for recreation would remain?

I can't prove a doubling or tripling of development is the future, but consider the pace we're on.

Of Maryland's 6.2 million land acres, 1.2 million, almost 20 percent of the state, was developed by 2000, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

About the same amount was permanently protected from development -- 1.2 million acres.

So the race is neck and neck for the heart and soul of our landscape and natural heritage -- green or paved. Project it out, and you end up 50-50.

That's a couple million acres less of farms, forests and wetlands than we've got now. It's 2.5 times the current suburbia.

There was reason to hope for better.

By the late 1990s, for the first time in history, Maryland was preserving open spaces faster than it was developing.

But now, with the blessing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature, it's turning again, with a vengeance, in favor of development, which state planners say consumes about 15,000 acres of field and forest annually -- an area larger than the city of Frederick.

In the past two years, our political leaders have eviscerated Maryland's Program Open Space (POS), once one of the nation's premier mechanisms for protecting natural resources.

The program, conceived in 1970, took a visionary approach that tied protection to the pace and price of development.

Each time property changes hands, half a percent of its value, known as a "transfer tax," goes to a fund for preserving and enhancing open spaces.

It's a perfect offset to our environmental impact. The faster we develop, the more money is generated to protect land.

Program Open Space has put more than a billion dollars into keeping Maryland green, protecting hundreds of thousands of acres.

Acreage alone can't measure the beauty and diversity owed to the program, from scenic waterfalls and old hemlocks in Western Maryland, to parks throughout the state, to prime hunting and miles of river shoreline on the Eastern Shore.

Add to that the emerging value of open space as a pollution filter. Intact forestland keeps more pollution out of our waters than billions invested in sewage treatment plants and storm-water ponds.

A few years ago, Program Open Space was critical to purchasing more than 50,000 acres of forest on the Shore -- the largest open-space acquisition in state history.

The dedicated nature of the program's funding, a guaranteed revenue stream, let the state move quickly to buy the huge tract from an insurance company.

But since 2002, in a misguided attempt to solve budget deficits, the governor and the legislature have raided an astounding $400 million from Program Open Space.

That includes the governor's latest budget, which legislators can cut, but can't increase. It's the worst yet, diverting to general funds all of the biggest transfer tax in history, at least $157 million.

Nothing, of course, will slow development, steaming along at 15,000 acres a year.

The Ehrlich budget uses $40 million in bonds to keep Program Open Space from running dry; but most goes to construction in parks and community playgrounds -- little goes to more open space.

Endangered-species habitat and the popular Rural Legacy countryside preservation program are both zeroed out in the latest Program Open Space budget.

Some will argue these are tough times, with more pressing needs for the money. Indeed, education, roads and health will always be more immediate concerns than preserving land, which is for our grandchildren.

That is why Program Open Space was given dedicated funding to begin with. To violate it violates a public trust. Is it coincidence that politicians bent on substituting gambling for paying our way honestly, through taxes, would also plunder our natural capital to balance their checkbook?

The program has been raided before -- close to $900 million diverted in its 34 years -- but never to this extent, and never with less promise of paying back the money.

The governor has said he favors restoring Program Open Space to full funding as the economy improves. But there's no timetable, no obligation, no talk of repaying what's being taken now.

As Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, notes, "it seems to be getting easier and easier" to substitute raiding of the program for responsible budgeting.

Further erosion of the program is evident in proposed legislation that would close a loophole that commercial real estate transactions use to avoid $45 million a year in transfer taxes. The bill would put the money into education, not open space.

James and Maryland environmental groups are working to increase this year's program funding, to secure a promise of repayment of recent raids, and to require repayment plans for future diversions.

But they face an uphill battle in an era when many Marylanders and their leaders appear content to pull the plug on nature.

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