Possible land sale concerns coalition

Environmental groups ask Ehrlich to halt action they fear could harm bay

October 16, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A coalition of environmental groups asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to cancel the proposed sale of state preservation land to a politically connected contractor for use as a tax shelter, saying the secretly negotiated transaction violates good-government principles and threatens a sensitive ecosystem.

"First, the approach to the proposed land sale does not reflect a fair and open government process," representatives of 1000 Friends of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, the Wilderness Society, American Farmland Trust and the Trust for Public Land said in a two-page letter. "Secondly, this proposed action raises serious environmental concerns."

Ehrlich did not respond yesterday, and has yet to take a position on the proposed sale of 836 acres of forest in St. Mary's County to an anonymous private individual identified in state documents as a "benefactor."

The governor would not answer a question about the transaction when he met with the media earlier this week.

The state completed the purchase of the forest property, which abuts rivers and parks in a rapidly growing area, for $2.5 million eight months ago. According to the state Department of General Services, the benefactor wants to buy the land at the same price, then give a portion of the tract to the Southern Maryland county for schools. The remainder would eventually be donated for preservation, but not before the benefactor held it for at least a year, collecting the maximum tax benefit.

This week, The Sun identified the benefactor as Willard J. Hackerman, the president and chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Baltimore. A regular donor to political campaigns whose company has built such projects as Harborplace and Baltimore's Convention Center, Hackerman is a longtime ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

Neither Hackerman nor Schaefer returned calls seeking comment yesterday.

Schaefer sits on the three-member Board of Public Works, which would have to approve the land deal, and often sides with Ehrlich on the panel.

Critics, including legislators and environmentalists, have attacked the proposal, saying the state should not broker secret transactions to help private individuals, especially when preservation land is at stake.

The St. Mary's forest "provides the best possible protection for the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and local tributaries in a part of Maryland undergoing rapid development and declining water quality," the environmental coalition wrote.

"As elected officials, we're entrusted by the taxpayers to make investments in an overall attempt to better the quality of life in Maryland," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "For us to turn around and sell these properties on the open market, in many respects, is a breach of that trust."

Some land-preservation experts say the type of transaction being considered could benefit Marylanders, because it could result in the land staying undeveloped while the state recoups money that could be used for even more land purchases.

"The tax write-off that Hackerman would get is a very useful tool for the state of Maryland and Program Open Space to benefit from," said Doug Carroll, who has worked on preservation projects in Baltimore County. "You can't arrange a public sale that says `This must be preserved,' and still take advantage of the write-off."

But others counter that there is no need for the state to sell the land, and that public perception has been tainted by the secrecy surrounding the deal. State officials have not said who initiated the proposal and when that happened, how the purchase price was set or how the property would be protected.

"If the public wants to have access to this land, then it makes sense to have it as public ownership, not private ownership," said George Maurer, senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland office.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Hackerman's reputation is being "sullied" by questions about the deal, which he says should not be completed because of opposition from Democratic state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, who represents St. Mary's County.

"If the state senator of a county for which he is the sole senator says, `I don't like the deal,' then it is not going to happen, as far as the General Assembly is concerned," Miller said. He added that a local county commissioner who is one of the chief supporters of the sale is considering challenging Dyson for his Senate seat, implying that the Republican commissioner could take credit for no-cost school-land acquisition during a Republican administration. The state GOP talks openly of its desire to oust Democratic senators in swing districts, such as Dyson's.

"There are a lot of undertones," Miller said. "But the worst of all is a derogation of our purpose for obtaining the land."

Legislative analysts also criticized the transaction because General Services officials had previously said they did not plan to get new appraisals for the property, meaning its current value would not be known. A General Services spokesman said this week that an in-house appraisal was under way but was not launched because of criticism from the General Assembly.

"The DGS decision to appraise property is normal business practice of our real-estate office," said spokesman Dave Humphrey. "We are conducting this appraisal to verify the value the property."

He rebutted charges that the deal was being negotiated out of public view, saying that the legislature's fiscal leaders were notified in two letters.

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