Conservation land deal hints at a dark tale

October 21, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

TIME GOES by, and stuff happens. And sometimes, when stuff happens, somebody gets indicted, or even convicted, or at least humiliated or dragged through the mud. And you know what? Same stuff happens again. Wait around long enough, and somebody somewhere tries to get away with a fast one.

I guess it's greed.

Or stupidity.

Or poor memory.

Or involuntary sleaziness.

I dunno.

Some guys are just so arrogant they believe they can't be touched. They think the stuff they do doesn't smell.

The young governor, Bobby Slots, approves a secret deal to sell state conservation land to Willard Hackerman, the wealthy, politically connected businessman, so Hackerman can enjoy a possible multimillion-dollar tax shelter or even a windfall of profit on the future sale of the land?

And these guys don't expect such a thing to raise eyebrows or crinkle noses?

Pardon me while I have an interlude: Does anyone around here remember the Mandel trial, or that guy named Agnew? Anyone remember Dale Anderson? How about, more recently, the Naughty Nate Chapman case? Ring a bell? How about the governor of Maryland campaigning in 2002 on a promise to wipe out the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis?

This latest tale from the dark side gives me a headache.

For a few reasons.

1. Why are we even doing this deal? It looks like it benefits one individual at the expense of the public.

According to the news stories about this deal -- broken by The Sun, by the way, and not by the otherwise-engaged news department at Sinclair Broadcasting Group -- the state of Maryland apparently is willing to sell 836 acres of forestland in St. Mary's County to Hackerman at the same price for which we bought it using funds from Program Open Space -- $2.5 million.

Part of the thinking is, if the state sells this "open space" to a private "benefactor," then the state has all the more money with which to acquire more land for preservation.

That's a good and practical idea.

But the problem is, unless Willard the Benefactor agrees to forfeit development rights, then this "open space" eventually could become a huge housing development. (St. Mary's Garth, or something like that.) Willard is a builder, after all. That's what he does. He builds things, and at as big a profit as possible.

Pardon me for joining the chorus of skeptics.

I haven't taken any classes in real estate, but this doesn't sound like such a good deal for the state.

2. Why all the secrecy? Bad thing, secrecy.

Once the governor and Hackerman explain it all, this deal might end up being a very sweet little thing -- even precious, in the eyes of environmentalists. But the fact that it was done in the shadows, without a full appraisal of the land in question and without the land being put up for bid by the state -- that's what gives this thing a bad aroma. Again, you got to ask -- haven't these guys been paying attention? You attach the word "secret" to anything besides a deodorant, and you're begging for trouble.

3. What is the state doing trying to sell "surplus land" anyway? Why not just keep every last inch of it? I don't know about anyone else around here, but almost everywhere you drive these days you see farmland or other open space being turned into cul-de-sacs.

Noticed Tracey's Choice up in Parkton lately? It's done nothing but diminish the green buffer along scenic Interstate 83 in north-central Maryland, with scatter-site McMansions where there used to be a soybean field. The man who inherited that land had an opportunity to put it into agricultural preservation -- he would have received a nice settlement for giving up development rights while still owning the property -- but he decided to contribute to the suburban sprawl in Baltimore County instead.

This happens way too much. Development in Maryland, at about 15,000 acres per year, has started to surpass land preservation again. Our model program, Program Open Space, has been gutted again.

So why, when the state owns land -- forests and fields in the bank, baby -- would we want to give any of it up?

4. Use of the term benefactor to describe the mystery man -- eventually identified by The Sun as Hackerman -- who would buy the land from the state, with a "promise" of giving part of it to St. Mary's County for a school site and giving up all future development rights. But none of that is apparently in writing yet.

Look, a "benefactor" in this case would not be looking to acquire the land -- at least not without an upfront, signed-and-sealed pledge never to develop it into townhouses and strip malls with an Applebee's attached.

Conservatives like to bash government as being too big and obtrusive. But whom do you trust to acquire and preserve ever-vanishing open space -- the state or a private "benefactor" who has given thousands upon thousands of dollars to politicians, Democrat and Republican, over the years?

If a millionaire wants to truly be a "benefactor," then he should give $2.5 million outright to the state for Program Open Space, no strings -- or forest land -- attached.

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