Government 101

December 09, 2004

WE'D LIKE to thank well-known Baltimore contractor and philanthropist Willard Hackerman for his public statement this week attempting to "set the record straight" on the highly questionable state plan to sell him preserved St. Mary's County land that he then would partially develop while reaping considerable tax benefits.

Not only was Mr. Hackerman's written explanation -- offered to a state legislative committee Tuesday -- his perfect right, but his statement adds some more needed details to this still somewhat murky land deal.

But at the same time, his explanation highlights certain critical questions that disturbingly remain unanswered at the core of this land-gate -- questions that state officials, from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office on down, must answer.

To be sure, there was a certain conceptual elegance to this deal:

The state was going to sell Mr. Hackerman land originally bound for preservation at a bit more than the price for which it was acquired. He'd then cleave off some valuable acreage for development and give some to St. Mary's for building schools, and he would recoup all of the cost of the land -- or more -- in tax benefits from preserving the remainder.

Everybody would be a winner: St. Mary's would get school land, the state would get someone else to finance the preservation of a large tract of land, and Mr. Hackerman would end up with land to develop at virtually no cost.

But here's just one of the unanswered questions:

Why did state officials think it was OK for them to proceed with Mr. Hackerman and only Mr. Hackerman -- as opposed to any other potential state-dubbed "benefactor" -- in this deal?

And this in turn brings us to another land deal publicly outlined in depth yesterday for the first time by Sun reporter David Nitkin: the leasing for no cost of a half-mile stretch of state park shoreline in Cecil County to a foundation set up by another big developer, a nonprofit that is being allowed to erect a large, resort-like education center and retreat there -- in part on sensitive waterfront land normally subject to strict state controls.

Sadly, here's another example of the state, originally under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, cutting a no-bid land deal in private with a businessman without much, if any, chance for public input or oversight.

Remember, both cases involve state land set aside for a park or for preservation -- land that belongs to all Marylanders, not state officials or certain well-connected, wealthy political donors who are so favored that they don't have to compete to gain control of desirable state real estate.

The basic principle here is pure Government 101: If the state is considering developing any park or preserved land, such proposals should be subject to public debate and, certainly if private interests are involved, to competitive bidding.

It's depressing that those running the show in Annapolis apparently need to be reminded of that.

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