Ehrlich neutral on sale of land

Proposal to sell St. Mary's forest needs study, he says

Neither `a good idea or a bad idea'

State acquired 836-acre preservation parcel in '03

October 26, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday played down his involvement in a proposal to sell preservation land to a politically connected contractor at the same price the state paid for it, saying the deal was just one of hundreds he has reviewed as a member of the state Board of Public Works.

"This is one land purchase agreement among many," Ehrlich said yesterday. "I do not get involved in the details of those land purchases. If I did, it would be very strange."

Ehrlich said he had not yet determined if it was beneficial for Maryland taxpayers to spend $2.5 million for 836 acres of untouched forest in St. Mary's County -- as they did in February -- with an undisclosed side agreement that the land would be promptly resold at the same price to Willard J. Hackerman, president and chief executive officer of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.

A regular donor to political campaigns, Hackerman would receive a tax break worth as much as $7 million if the transaction is completed, without a written guarantee that the land would stay undeveloped. He would also donate some property for St. Mary's schools. The public works board has not yet approved the sale to Hackerman.

"I think it's a fair question, and it needs to be vetted," the governor said. "I don't think necessarily it's a good idea or a bad idea."

The governor elaborated yesterday on the real-estate deal that has been heavily criticized recently by legislative analysts and environmentalists, and was the subject of a state Senate hearing last week while the governor was on a trade mission to China and Singapore.

The St. Mary's forest was a small portion of the second-largest conservation deal in state history, completed during the final days of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration. The purchase of the 836 acres was delayed because of fiscal troubles.

Questions about sale

Analysts for the General Assembly first raised concerns about the land swap about a month ago, questioning why the state was selling conservation land at the same price for which it was purchased, without obtaining new appraisals.

The state Department of General Services has subsequently announced it is obtaining two appraisals for the land, and the governor said yesterday he believes the new appraisals are warranted.

Legislative analysts also questioned why the state was trusting a person named in documents only as an anonymous "benefactor" to preserve the property, without a firm guarantee.

The Sun identified the benefactor as Hackerman. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has since confirmed the involvement of Hackerman -- a longtime Schaefer ally whose company built such Baltimore landmarks as Harborplace and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Ehrlich said he has never had a conversation with Hackerman about the sale.

"I have never discussed the deal with the benefactor or anyone representing him, as you know," Ehrlich said. "I have a big problem with the way the story has been portrayed, quite frankly. ... It is so inappropriate to characterize this as some sort of negotiation, some backroom deal, when there was no back room."

Last week, Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford testified that Hackerman approached his agency in the spring of last year, looking for land to buy. Rutherford said he connected Hackerman with the Department of Natural Resources.

Rutherford said he would not have recommended that the state purchase the St. Mary's land had Hackerman not agreed to buy it from the state, at cost. But the second half of the transaction was not publicized at the time.

Rutherford told senators last week that he had briefed Ehrlich on the deal, and that the governor said it was "worth pursuing."

The secretary refined his comments yesterday, saying that he briefed Ehrlich along with the two other members of the public works board, Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, during a pre-meeting that took place minutes before the vote was scheduled.

No concerns raised

Rutherford said he used Hackerman's name in the pre-meeting, and no one raised concerns.

"The governor really doesn't see the individual transactions before they go to the board," Rutherford said. "I told him what we were trying to do in the premeeting. ... Everybody felt comfortable with that."

Ehrlich raised a question about preventing future development, Rutherford said. "The comptroller said, `If he says he is going to do it, he is going to do it,' " the secretary said.

State officials sent mixed signals yesterday about whether they would proceed with the deal in light of mounting criticism.

"We will see what occurs over the next few days," Ehrlich said. "Given Governor Schaefer's comments on the radio last week, I am not sure whether he has had discussions -- but it is clear from Governor Schaefer's comments as reported to me that he is less enthusiastic about this approach today."

Through spokesman Michael Golden, Schaefer said yesterday he is "waiting to see what the governor wants to do."

Rutherford said Hackerman is not walking away. "He wants to prove that what he is doing is good for the state," Rutherford said. Hackerman did not return a telephone message yesterday.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary Ronald Franks, who has not previously spoken on the transaction, said in an interview yesterday that he would not comment on whether the proposed sale was beneficial for taxpayers. But Franks said he would like to see the land replaced, if it is sold to Hackerman.

"This land in St. Mary's County, at the time it was purchased, was considered to be environmentally sensitive," Franks said. "We would like to see this land replaced with greater or equally sensitive land, if it is sold. Hopefully, we will be able to do that with the proceeds of the sale."

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