Tax dollars and scents

October 15, 2004

OTHER THAN a pile of rotting crab shells, it's hard to find anything that stinks as badly as the Ehrlich administration's plan to sell an 836-acre parcel in St. Mary's County to developer Willard Hackerman at a cut-rate price.

Can you imagine any government agency selling something so valuable without first putting it out for bid or appraisal? Or selling protected forest - important, environmentally sensitive land - with no guarantee that it won't be developed in the future? We can't - and Maryland residents should be outraged that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is even considering such a deal.

This proposal surfaced publicly only recently - and with the sketchiest of detail. General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford first informed legislators in August that the potential buyer of the $2.5 million property was a "benefactor" with a "history of philanthropy." Naturally, such glowing words raised eyebrows. The fact that it was the influential Mr. Hackerman, the president of Whiting-Turner Contracting, was revealed by Sun reporter David Nitkin yesterday. Mr. Hackerman has, indeed, been involved in numerous acts of philanthropy, but the developer is also a longtime supporter of William Donald Schaefer and has considerable clout in the State House.

The idea is for Mr. Hackerman to buy the land for the same amount the state's Program Open Space paid for it eight months ago. A year or more later, he would convey development rights, an act that would carry considerable tax benefits, particularly if the land is appraised well above the $2.5 million purchase price, as most observers suspect it would. If, on the other hand, the state required him to donate these development rights as a condition of the sale, there would be little tax advantage for him or his estate.

While there are several ways to interpret the ramifications of this possible sale, none of them bears a particularly pleasant odor. At the very least, it's outrageous that the administration has not been more public about such a sale. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant. Striking lucrative tax-avoidance deals with the politically powerful in secret doesn't exactly raise public confidence in the ethical machinations of government. It just comes off as sleazy.

It's bad enough that the Ehrlich administration has virtually wiped out Maryland's Program Open Space, the state's special fund for parks and conservation, by raiding it each year to balance the budget. But using the program for the benefit of one wealthy individual (and risking a valuable chunk of Southern Maryland's natural heritage) goes beyond the pale. Mr. Ehrlich needs to recall his campaign for governor two years ago when he derided the Annapolis "culture of corruption," and bury this deal before it smells any worse.

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