A bull market in land preservation

Some free-market environmentalists see private ownership through trusts and conservation easements as compatible with state efforts to save rural acreage.

December 12, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

THE IDEA that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is considering the sale of pieces of state-owned land totaling 3,000 acres has enflamed environmental advocates who fear that the Ehrlich administration is endangering treasured public spaces in a period of relentless development sprawl.

But some experts say that private ownership of land is not necessarily incompatible with preserving Maryland's rural landscape. These free-market environmentalists point to tools such as conservation easements and the proliferation of land trusts as proof that a robust market exists for preservation.

"The track record that the states and federal government has in managing land is very poor," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "Open space has value, but that doesn't mean the government has to provide it."

Local land trusts have helped Maryland protect much of its open space through conservation easements - voluntary restrictions that private owners place on their land. In exchange for donating the development rights, the owners can pocket a healthy tax break.

Developers frequently negotiate deals with local governments in Howard and other suburban Maryland counties that allow them to cluster groups of new homes in a relatively small area of a larger tract while protecting a larger portion of the property from development. The clustering can be a win-win, cutting development costs while helping to preserve the rural landscape.

These development deals are complemented by local land trusts established by residents hoping to preserve their rural environment.

In 1989, Maryland had eight land trusts. Now, it has 52 - many of them shoestring operations staffed by volunteers. The Maryland Environmental Trust, a quasi-public agency, helps land trusts form and guides landowners looking to preserve property. The trust also is responsible for making sure that those with easements do not develop their property.

Enforcement is a challenge, said Nick Williams, acting director. Much of the time, a violation is an innocent one - such as the property was sold, and the new owner didn't realize that building a driveway in the easement broke the rules.

"It happens a few times a year," Williams said. "There are instances of abuse, but they are very few."

One of the largest private land preservation groups nationally is the Nature Conservancy, which last year took some heat after a Washington Post investigation revealed some questionable dealings. Among them: The conservancy had drilled for oil and developed homes on environmentally sensitive lands and had sold conservancy land to its donors.

Looking at tax breaks

This year, the Internal Revenue Service launched a large-scale audit of the conservancy, and announced that it would more closely scrutinize tax breaks for easements.

George Maurer, senior land planner at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Nature Conservancy investigation has "created some skepticism and suspicions that didn't exist before."

Maurer said the growth of land trusts and private groups in no way means the state should get out of the land-preservation business. It wouldn't be in its interest, given the high taxes it can collect from nearby properties whose owners value the green space.

"There have been any number of analysis and studies that show that preserved open space provides a great return on investment, and that government even gets a return on improved values on properties that abut protected open space," he said.

State's sale strategy

And even the most libertarian environmentalists say they have concerns about the Ehrlich administration's land-sale strategy.

The public became aware of DNR's list of public lands being considered for sale only after revelation of state negotiations to sell a Southern Maryland forest to politically connected construction magnate Willard Hackerman.

The 836-acre forest in St. Mary's County was not on the list, and the state was planning to sell the parcel to Hackerman for the $2.5 million price that it had paid - despite the soaring costs of St. Mary's land. Though Hackerman had told state officials he intended to preserve the land in exchange for $7 million in tax breaks, documents show that he intended to build homes there. Hackerman has since dropped out of the deal.

Randal O'Toole, an Oregon environmentalist affiliated with several free-market think tanks, said the Maryland land-sale plan is troubling because of the secrecy surrounding the Hackerman deal and because the state stood to gain little economically.

Suggestions

"If I were in their shoes, I would announce that some state lands are difficult to manage, and that disposal was under consideration and ask for public comment," O'Toole said. "Secret sales and below-market sales would be out of the question."

DNR officials have said that much of the land on its list will not be sold to developers. Rather, it would be transferred to local governments to reduce the state's operating costs.

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