Potential land sale by state criticized

Tract recently purchased using preservation funds

Prospective buyer's name not revealed

October 01, 2004|By Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin | Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The state spent land preservation funds last year to buy an 836-acre tract of forest in St. Mary's County while it was negotiating to sell it at cost to a private citizen officials have not named, without securing a commitment that he would forfeit the right to develop it. Legislators balked yesterday at the proposed sale, saying it is a betrayal of public trust.

"I think it stinks," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "It is counter and contrary to all intentions that the legislature has for the use of Program Open Space money."

McIntosh and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that they plan to ask Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to reject the sale, which is set for a vote this month by the Board of Public Works.

Spokesmen for Kopp and Schaefer declined to comment, saying they will need to study the matter. Representatives of the Department of Natural Resources, which owns the property, would not comment.

Department of General Services spokesman David Humphrey said the state has begun the process of selling the land, but no transaction is imminent.

"There is no deal. There is no contract. There is no plan to present a land sale to the Board of Public Works in October," Humphrey said.

The tract was part of one of the largest land purchases in Maryland history, known as the Glatfelter purchase. The state bought most of the 23,000 acres in the final days of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration through Program Open Space, but the purchase of a smaller piece, of which this property is part, was deferred.

Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford wrote to the chairmen of the Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations committees in August that an individual, whom he only named as "the benefactor," expressed interest in buying the St. Mary's land last year.

The state considered at the time acquiring the property, known as the Salem Tract, and selling it to "the benefactor" at cost, Rutherford wrote. He added that the potential purchaser told the state that he was interested in donating the development rights to the Maryland Historic Trust over a period of years but could not do so until he held it for 12 months.

For tax purposes, Rutherford wrote, "the benefactor" could not commit to the donation in advance.

"The benefactor's history of philanthropy and his reputation as a man of his word has eased some initial concerns regarding selling the property without a conservation easement," Rutherford wrote.

The Board of Public Works approved the purchase of the deferred part of the Glatfelter properties, including the Salem Tract, on Nov. 12. On Sept. 17 of this year, a month after first writing to the committee chairmen, Rutherford sent them another letter saying the state planned to negotiate an agreement of sale for the property.

Busch said the deal smacks of favoritism and inside dealing.

"This kind of thing erodes, as far as I'm concerned, the public trust," he said.

The potential buyer "could be a huge contributor to political campaigns. We don't know," Busch said.

This week, Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's top budget analyst, wrote in a letter to legislators that the state faced the prospect of "significant financial loss" if it sells the property at cost, which was approximately $2.5 million.

The state did not conduct an appraisal to determine the current value of the property, which could be much higher than a year ago because of rapid growth in St. Mary's County. In addition, the state incurred costs in the purchase, such as land surveys and title searches, as well as interest costs from the bonds used to finance it, Deschenaux wrote.

The sale appears to be legal but "imprudent," he wrote.

Humphrey called Deschenaux's warning letter "extremely premature." The DNR has declared the property as surplus, but Humphrey said he did not know why. The next step, he said, is to offer the land to other government agencies.

Susan Brown, head of the League of Conservation Voters, said she is concerned that the preserved land, which she said is ecologically sensitive, could be lost.

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