It's pivotal year for Md. land protection


Preservation: While the administration hopes to step up the raid on Program Open Space funds to balance the budget, opposition in the legislature is growing.

March 11, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

A FRIEND, discoursing on the value of open space, says owning 25 acres means he can indulge the occasional need to walk outside naked and fire a shotgun.

Not everyone's cup of tea. But for all of us, space to roam, to commune with nature, to hunt, to fish - to wonder and imagine what's around the bend and over the hill - is intimately bound with freedom, which is what my bare-butt, gun-toting friend was really talking about.

With Maryland's population close to a citizen for each of the state's 6.2 million acres, nowadays we must secure the freedoms and delights of the land collectively, in public ownership.

Indeed, projected growth indicates that Maryland by 2050 will be more densely settled than most of Europe (excepting only Belgium and the Netherlands).

Nothing is more key to ensuring that the state retains vital natural and recreational quality than Maryland's Program Open Space, which the Ehrlich administration is coming close to dismantling, and this year's General Assembly is debating how to restore.

The genius of the program, begun in 1970, was that it tied the pace of land preservation directly to the pace of land development. By law, every time property is sold, a transfer tax, one half of 1 percent of the property's value, goes to POS. Buy a $200,000 home, and you contribute $1,000 to public open space.

The faster development goes, the more money to offset the impact flows into POS.

Since its inception, Program Open Space has generated nearly $1 billion that has gone to an astounding range of purchases - parks and forests, local soccer fields and ballparks, prime farmland conservation, urban trails, endangered species habitat, Civil War battlefields, "working landscapes" like commercial timberlands, public hunting marshes and paddling and biking trails.

It has protected hundreds of thousands of acres, though acreage alone can't describe miles of forested river and bay shoreline, spectacular waterfalls and meadows of wildflowers.

The Ehrlich administration is not the first to balance budgets by grabbing POS money. Between 1985 and 1997, governors and legislatures siphoned close to $500 million before restoring full funding.

It's more than just shortchanging our future. It's breaking trust with everyone who ever bought or sold property in Maryland. The half-percent transfer tax they paid was not intended as a crutch for budget-challenged politicians. This governor is bidding to set new records for open space thievery. His latest budget proposes to take $163 million, some 75 percent of all the POS money expected in the 2006 fiscal year.

That's on top of hundreds of millions used to offset deficits in his previous budgets. And his budget proposes to take money away from open space for another three years.

The administration doesn't stop with that. It also plans to permanently divert all so-called "over-attainment" in POS , money in excess of what is projected to come in. This "over-attainment" amounts to about $140 million last fiscal year and this. Taking it permanently subverts the very concept of the law that ties the development rate to the preservation rate.

Similarly, the governor would expand allowing POS money to be used for operating funds by the Department of Natural Resources (for state parks). Again, this is not why citizens pay that transfer tax.

More than 100 groups have organized around bills in the General Assembly to restore some of this year's POS funds and restrict future raids. Supporters range from the state's major environmental organizations to county slow-pitch softball leagues and lacrosse clubs, reflecting the wide appeal of Program Open Space.

The unraveling of POS is endangering projects and commitments large and small, legislators have been told. Rural counties now need several years just to build a single ballpark; Howard County is getting about one-sixteenth the open space money it needs for a fast-growing population.

The state is falling badly behind on its commitments to preserve farmland and other rural landscapes. And no one has similarly slowed development, which is converting about 28,000 acres of open space each year, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

This is a watershed year for Maryland's lands. Program Open Space could be reasserted as the national model for protection that it once was; or it could unravel beyond repair.

For more information:, or call Partners for Open Space, 410-279-2404.

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