Construction magnate Willard J. Hackerman hoped to build houses with a water view on preserved land in St. Mary's County that he secretly negotiated to buy from the state, according to documents released by Maryland agencies yesterday.
A memo from a state Department of Natural Resources official says that Hackerman wanted a zoning change on the land to allow residential development and asked the department to grant a "viewshed" over adjacent state lands that would enable homebuyers to gaze on a nearby lake.
Documents obtained by The Sun under Maryland's Public Information Act also show that Hackerman, who this week backed out of the deal that could have netted him up to $7 million in tax breaks, attempted to block a federal grant that would have allowed the state to permanently preserve the 836-acre tract. Such a move, a DNR official warned, would have been a "major embarrassment or worse" to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Using the federal funds to buy the land would have prevented development on the parcel.
This week Hackerman, president and chief executive officer of Whiting-Turner Construction Co., dropped his effort to buy the land but offered to donate $1 million to St. Mary's County to allow it to purchase part of the tract to build schools. Hackerman did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.
Documents show dissent within the Ehrlich administration about whether the deal should go through and suggest how valuable the land could be to Hackerman, who refused to commit legally to preserving the parcel before he purchased it.
"The perception problem may be compounded since the potential purchaser of the parcel plans to seek a change in zoning to facilitate residential development," the memo says. "The purchaser appears to plan to subdivide the property and to develop it to some extent. There is also a potential problem with the purchaser requesting that DNR provide a viewshed easement over DNR lands to facilitate the water view of the property to be excessed."
The DNR memo, included in several hundreds of pages of documents from that agency and the state Department of General Services, was undated and unsigned. A DNR spokesman could not immediately identify its author yesterday.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor was not aware of details of the land deal until late last month, after his return from an Asian trade mission.
Documents show that natural resources chief C. Ronald Franks, whose agency appears to have generated much of the dissent, wanted to talk to Ehrlich in August about the deal. But Fawell said a meeting was never scheduled.
The property was part of the second-largest land preservation deal in state history, begun in 2002 under the administration of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The tract, which was owned by the Glatfelter Wood Pulp Co., was rated "excellent" by the Department of Natural Resources for its ecological significance. Its purchase was delayed, however, because of budget constraints.
In the summer of 2003, Hackerman, 86, suggested that the state buy the St. Mary's tract and then sell it to him for the same price, roughly $2.5 million. He said he would donate some of the land to St. Mary's County for schools, which officials there say are badly needed, and, over a period of years, donate development rights to the property to the Maryland Environmental Trust.
The donation would yield Hackerman federal and state tax breaks worth as much as $7 million based on the land's potential development value.
State officials voted to buy the land in November 2003 after Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford told the Board of Public Works that an unnamed "benefactor" had agreed to buy it from the state and preserve it.
The documents show that at the time, the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that acted as a middleman in the state's purchase of Glatfelter land, objected to the Ehrlich administration's plan to sell the property to Hackerman.
Instead, it wanted the state to wait for approval of federal grant funds to "save the state of Maryland money during difficult fiscal times and ensure [the] full and permanent protection of the Glatfelter forest properties," Conservation Fund Vice President David M. Sutherland wrote in a Dec. 10, 2003, letter.
Contacted last night, Sutherland declined to comment further.
The state's purchase of the land occurred in February this year.
Appeal to senators
According to the DNR memo, which appears to have been prepared before the November 2003 Board of Public Works meeting, Hackerman called Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and tried to persuade him to stop the federal funds so he could buy the land.
In letters to Sarbanes and Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Hackerman wrote: "The state would rather be paid by me than with federal funds (same amount) because the county could not get the land contributed for the school. (Not allowed because a contribution is not possible with federal funds.)"