Schaefer defends state plan to sell St. Mary's acreage

Criticism may put deal in peril, comptroller says

October 23, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer defended yesterday the proposed sale of state-owned preservation land to a politically connected developer as good for Marylanders, but said he thought the transaction might be canceled because of mounting criticism.

"I doubt it is going to go through," Schaefer said yesterday during a two-hour appearance on radio station WBAL in Baltimore. "Every politician is going to jump on it."

Schaefer confirmed that the developer who wants to buy the 836-acre parcel in St. Mary's County for the same price the state paid for it last year is Willard J. Hackerman, president and chief executive officer of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and a longtime Schaefer ally.

Citing sources, The Sun identified Hackerman last week, but Schaefer is the first official familiar with the deal to publicly confirm his involvement.

"Willard said, `I want to do something. ... I want to put an easement on top of the land so it wouldn't be developed,'" Schaefer said, explaining how the sale was proposed. He said he learned of it six months ago.

The plan became public about three weeks ago when the state Department of General Services notified lawmakers that the Ehrlich administration was planning the sale of preservation land, purchased in February, for about $2.5 million to an individual identified only as "the benefactor." The St. Mary's parcel was a small part of the second-largest land preservation deal in state history, negotiated in the final days of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.

The benefactor would buy the land at the same price the state paid and donate about 150 acres to St. Mary's County for schools. After holding the property for at least a year, the benefactor would agree to preserve the property, receiving a federal and state income tax break that could be worth $7 million or more, state documents show.

Lawmakers and environmentalists have questioned why the state is acting as a broker or middleman, allowing Hackerman to buy the land without a written guarantee that it would be preserved. They have also criticized the secrecy surrounding the deal and that the land has not been put up for bid.

The property is zoned for one house per 5 acres, and is in a fast-growing area of Southern Maryland, where large undeveloped parcels are growing scarce.

This week, General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford offered more details during testimony before a Senate committee. He said that the state had been planning to delay the St. Mary's land purchase indefinitely because of fiscal concerns, but revived the transaction after being contacted by Hackerman, who was looking for land.

Hackerman was shown several state-owned properties, Rutherford said, including one in Charles County, and was allowed to select the one he wanted. The state Board of Public Works, made up of Schaefer, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, agreed to the state's purchase of the land. The same board also would have to agree to the sale to Hackerman, but has not been asked to do so yet.

"I haven't heard anything definitive about it being dead, nor ... about it being placed on the [Public Works] agenda," said Kopp yesterday. "I wouldn't be surprised if it never came on the agenda. There are so many questions that still have to be resolved, and people have to feel comfortable about it."

Rutherford said he briefed Ehrlich on the deal and the governor gave the go-ahead, saying it was "worth pursuing." Ehrlich has been traveling in Asia and has not been reachable for comment. Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Ehrlich, has refused to answer questions on the subject.

Rutherford spokeswoman Ann Hubbard said yesterday that the secretary is preparing to brief Ehrlich next week about the Senate hearing. Because of the Asia trip, the two men have not discussed the matter since the hearing, Hubbard said.

On the radio yesterday, Schaefer described Hackerman as a generous individual who donates more than a million dollars annually to charity, and who has built housing for low-income families and the homeless. Hackerman's firm has been behind some of the biggest development projects in Baltimore.

Thomas McKay, president of the St. Mary's County Board of County Commissioners and a Republican, said he hopes the deal is finalized. The county has been searching for years for a new school site, and taxpayers would have to pay millions to buy enough land for a middle school and a high school.

"It's an excellent thing for St. Mary's County," McKay said, adding that "people have put aside the real value for the citizens ... and say the process has been tainted. In fact, the governor has followed the exact process the legislature laid out. I just believe that it's partisan politics instead of debating the value of the concept and the idea."

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