State reviews parcel's value

Md. to reappraise tract before sale in secret deal

`Proposal may be imprudent'

Prominent political donor to benefit from transaction

October 15, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The state Department of General Services has dispatched appraisers to estimate the value of an undeveloped property in Southern Maryland, responding to criticism over a secret deal to sell the state-owned land to a politically connected contractor.

The decision to seek a new appraisal comes after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch wrote to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other members of the state Board of Public Works asking that the land sale be put on hold because of questions.

"This proposal may be imprudent based on ... policy and fiscal concerns," the letter, released yesterday, read. "Accordingly, we recommend that DGS withdraw plans to present the proposed sale to the [board] until more detailed information is provided."

Appraisers began to survey the 836-acre property in St. Mary's County yesterday, but cut short the work when their truck got stuck in mud and required towing, said Dave Humphrey, a General Services spokesman. Ehrlich administration officials previously told the General Assembly that they did not intend to seek a new valuation before selling the tract to an unnamed "benefactor" for the same price the state paid for it eight months ago.

The Sun identified the benefactor yesterday as Willard J. Hackerman, president and chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., a prominent political donor and ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Hackerman has not returned telephone messages to discuss the transaction.

Because land values are rising quickly in Southern Maryland, critics say Hackerman could wind up buying the property for less than it is worth -- meaning taxpayers would not receive a fair return on their investment. While the forest land was purchased by the state with Program Open Space dollars for $3,300 an acre, land zoned for housing can sell for about $20,000 an acre, some Southern Maryland officials say.

The St. Mary's property is part of one of the largest preservation deals in state history, undertaken in the final days of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration. But some of the Southern Maryland land was purchased later because of financial concerns.

Environmentalists have criticized the proposed transaction with Hackerman, saying the state would be undermining its land preservation efforts by rapidly flipping property and serving as a go-between for a private individual who would reap a tax benefit.

Humphrey said the new valuation would be calculated by certified and trained state employees, not by an outside firm. About one in 10 state real estate transactions use in-house appraisers, he said. He said the appraisal would take one to two weeks to complete.

"Land values in St. Mary's County have risen in areas zoned for development," Humphrey said. "However, this property is not zoned for heavy development. Therefore, we believe the value has not changed that dramatically. In essence, what we have is timberland property. Timberland property costs cannot be reasonably compared with residential property costs."

The Ehrlich administration is considering selling the land at the same $2.5 million purchase price it paid for it in February. The "benefactor" intends eventually to donate most of the land to the Maryland Historic Trust, state documents indicate, but not before holding it for at least a year to reap the maximum tax write-off.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to discuss the transaction, at which General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford and Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks are scheduled to appear. "I would say we are skeptical about the deal. We have serious concerns," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat.

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