Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he sees no need for an investigation into his administration's aborted proposal to sell a protected Southern Maryland forest to a politically connected construction company owner at a cut-rate price, and said none of his aides face punishment for pushing the deal.
"I don't know why that investigation would occur," the governor said in his first public comments since the release of documents showing that Willard Hackerman intended to build homes with a waterfront view on the 836-acre property in St. Mary's County, rather than preserving it as state officials had insisted.
"That was an issue, and the subject of discussion between various Cabinet secretaries at different levels of the state government," Ehrlich said, referring to the threat of development on preservation land. "But it was also the subject of disagreement among Cabinet secretaries as well. It was something that was playing itself out."
Ehrlich said he was not concerned that the state came close to selling the land to Hackerman at the same $2.5 million purchase price paid by taxpayers earlier this year, without a firm guarantee that it would stay undeveloped. Hackerman backed away from the plan this week.
Hackerman had indicated that he was seeking a tax break worth at least $7 million by donating development rights on the land, but documents released this week show that natural resources officials believed he also wanted to rezone the property to build homes with a waterfront view.
As a member of the state Board of Public Works, Ehrlich voted in November last year for the state to buy the land with tax dollars that are used for preservation. The governor and the other board members, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, were aware at the time that the state intended to promptly sell the property to Hackerman without a preservation guarantee, according to testimony from state Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford.
Hackerman had pledged to donate some of the land for schools, and said he would preserve the rest after holding it for at least a year so he could qualify for state and federal tax breaks based on the difference between the land's value for development and its worth as preservation property.
Hackerman, 86, is a close ally of Schaefer. Ehrlich relies on Schaefer's vote on the public works board to enact policy. But Hackerman's name was never revealed during public meetings, nor were the details of a raging interagency debate over his plans to prepare the environmentally significant tract for development.
A document released this week showed that some natural resources officials believed the transaction would have "opened the door for serious criticism against Governor Ehrlich causing major embarrassment or worse."
Ehrlich has repeatedly said he was not aware of the details of the deal.
"I think the process played itself out the way it was supposed to play itself out," he said yesterday. "It was the subject of internal debate. It was on its way out to the Board of Public Works, where it would have again been the subject of debate, and a vote."
Documents released this week also show that the natural resources agency has identified 65 state-owned parcels that it is considering selling, fueling fears among environmentalists that the Ehrlich administration is embarking on a strategy of divesting the state of preservation land. The St. Mary's land is not on the list.
The parcels total about 2,500 acres out of nearly 500,000 owned and managed by the Natural Resources Department, agency Secretary C. Ronald Franks said yesterday.
Ehrlich said yesterday that it was not a goal of his administration to privatize state lands.
"The major land policy goal of our administration has been ... to narrow land purchases with respect to not a single function, but a primary function, which is impact on the [Chesapeake] Bay and critical areas," he said.
Franks said yesterday that the surplus-lands list contained "odds and ends" that were identified as part of a "house-cleaning move" that was one of the first tasks of a new administration. "I asked them to do a very detached view: Look at our properties, look at our mission," Franks said.
He said he gave the list to Ehrlich deputy chief of staff Edward Miller, adding that he was unsure whether the parcels are to be made available for sale.