Senate pushes for say on land

Bills would give power to block sale of state sites

`It's the public's money'

DNR counters that review would cramp routine work

General Assembly

February 18, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Legislators should have the power to block the sale of state parkland, leading senators said yesterday, despite concerns from agency officials that such interference would hamstring their ability to conduct routine property management.

"If we add another layer of review, it's going to be to the point of lockdown. We are not going to be able to function," said Eugene A. Piotrowski, director of resource planning for the state Department of Natural Resources, at a joint hearing of Senate budget and environmental committees on land preservation legislation.

Lawmakers said they could alleviate some agency worries by tweaking legislation that would provide greater public protections - such as mandatory appraisals and competitive bidding - when preservation land is being sold.

But key senators said they would not retreat from changes in the aftermath of an aborted plan by the Ehrlich administration to sell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to a Baltimore contractor and revelations that the administration had developed a list of "potentially excess" parkland that could be sold.

"It's the public's money," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "They expect nothing less from us."

The land-protection bills are a priority this year for many Democratic lawmakers, outraged that top aides to Ehrlich were negotiating the sale of the Southern Maryland forest last year to contracting company owner Willard Hackerman.

Hackerman has been a major Democratic donor, a longtime supporter of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and an important ally of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Even as lawmakers learned of the transaction, the state Department of General Services refused to disclose who was buying the forest at the same price the state paid for it, referring to Hackerman only as an anonymous "benefactor."

Hackerman has said through a lawyer that he never asked for confidentiality.

Hackerman would have received a multimillion-dollar tax break after donating the development rights to a land trust, but documents released through public records requests revealed that Hackerman also intended to build homes there.

"There were no guarantees that the land would not be further developed," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, blaming the state Department of General Services for keeping Hackerman's name a secret.

Other public records showed that state officials compiled a list of about 3,000 acres in and around state parks as potentially excess land, an initial step before it could be sold.

One of those properties was a Harford County tract containing the state's second-highest waterfall, preserved after schoolchildren raised money to fill a gap in state funding. One of those former students - now 28 - testified yesterday.

"Governor Ehrlich says it was a misunderstanding, and I would really like to believe that," said Holly Ranker, who told senators how North Harford High School students erupted in cheers when they learned they had doubled their goal of $17,000 and the waterfall could be turned into a park.

"As citizens, we have the right to be informed about the sale of any of these lands," Ranker said.

The four bills heard yesterday would provide greater oversight when land is sold, including a proposal to put a constitutional amendment restricting land sales on the ballot in 2006.

"The general rule ought to be that once we acquire some land, we ought to hang onto it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and the lead sponsor of the amendment.

Republican lawmakers questioned the need for legislation. Land sales are approved by the state Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer; those officials provide enough oversight, Republicans said.

"I think the Hackerman deal was a mess. It should never have happened," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader, from the Eastern Shore. "But I am also concerned we are going to gum up the process."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the governor "has serious concerns and reservations about any bill that would attempt to limit gubernatorial power."

"The governor believes there is nothing wrong with the current system for disposing of land," DeLeaver said. "However, he is willing to work with the legislature on any bill."

Two leading Democrats who are expected to run for governor weighed in on the subject yesterday. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan supported the legislation at the hearing, saying "clearly there are problems with the current regulations."

"There are no clear rules about the marketing of state property," Duncan said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a statement: "I support all legislation to protect these state-owned lands against an administration that would seek to sell off state land for quick budget fixes."

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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