Lobbying push tied to resort approval

10 were hired to help defeat building limits near wildlife refuge

June 09, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

The developers of a $1 billion golf resort and housing development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore hired 10 prominent State House lobbyists and paid them at least $125,000 in a successful fight against restrictions on the project, records show.

The lobbying push - one of the most intense and costly of the General Assembly session that ended in April - was aimed squarely at state Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who introduced legislation to limit construction in the environmentally sensitive area.

"It's absolutely disgusting," Brochin said of the lobbying, which was disclosed in recent filings with the State Ethics Commission. "It means that big money and high-powered lobbyists triumph over the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. That's exactly how it shouldn't be."

Brochin's bill, which would have barred construction on about a third of the 1,080-acre site south of Cambridge in Dorchester County, drew heavy criticism from some Eastern Shore elected officials who said a Baltimore County lawmaker should not meddle in their affairs. Several local officials said the project would be a boon to the region's economy, adding jobs and tax revenue.

The developer of the almost 2,700-home Blackwater Resort project, Duane Zentgraf, and his attorney, William "Sandy" McAllister, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Among the 10 lobbyists hired by Zentgraf's firm, Egypt Road LLC, was J. William Pitcher, an Annapolis veteran who has formed a "strategic alliance" with David Hamilton, the personal lawyer of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., according to the Web site of Hamilton's Baltimore law firm, Ober/Kaler. Ehrlich once practiced at the firm.

Hamilton founded Ober's government relations practice shortly after Ehrlich was elected governor but has never registered as a lobbyist with the ethics commission, meaning that he does not have to report his earnings to the state.

Hamilton is the subject of an ethics complaint filed by opponents of a liquefied natural gas terminal proposed for Sparrows Point. They say he met with legislators to help secure a grant for the project this year without registering as a lobbyist.

Pitcher said yesterday that Hamilton played no role in the efforts to help the Blackwater Resort project.

Pitcher received $20,000 from Egypt Road to lobby against the legislation that would have limited the project, ethics commission records show.

He said he talked to perhaps 100 legislators to convince them that storm water flowing from the subdivision and retail complex would be filtered through storm water retention ponds and other planned improvements, making it cleaner than it is now. The area is wetlands and farm fields today.

"If there has ever been a green project, this is it," Pitcher said. "Why should a senator from Baltimore County be telling people from Cambridge and Dorchester County what to do with their land?"

The campaign employed nine other lobbyists, including Michael C. Powell, a high-profile lobbyist representing builders and industrial interests, who received $20,271; Robert Enten, who got $29,729; and Frank D. Boston III, who received $25,000, records show. The total surpassed $125,000, but the exact amount isn't clear because two of the lobbyists missed a May 31 deadline for filing disclosure forms.

The Senate defeated the Brochin bill by a 27-20 vote on March 24.

The developer's army of lobbyists was among the largest employed by a single client during the Assembly session. Constellation Energy Group, faced with a bill to control air pollution and legislation to limit a proposed 72 percent electricity rate increase, used 16 lobbyists in a $396,592 campaign, state records show. The Atlanta-based Mirant power company paid 10 lobbyists more than $146,000, and Allegheny Energy paid three lobbyists $75,375, state records show.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Blackwater Resort's team was a recognition of the high level of public opposition to the project.

Coble said the foundation has collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition urging the governor to oppose the development, which awaits final approval from the Cambridge City Council and the state Critical Area Commission, a majority of whose members are appointed by Ehrlich.

"The governor has the opportunity to make a stand on protecting the wildlife refuge and the bay against poorly planned development," Coble said. "We need our leaders to say this type of development is not good for Maryland or the environment."

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return a phone call last night. Previously, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell has said that development is mostly a local issue and that the governor "has a great respect for local government to make their own decisions."

The chairman of the Critical Area Commission, Martin G. Madden, who was appointed by the governor, testified against the Brochin bill this year.

The Blackwater Resort project was originally planned for 3,200 homes but was scaled back by 500 homes after Dorchester County officials prohibited housing in an environmentally critical area within 1,000 feet of the Little Blackwater River.

The Brochin bill would have barred all building in that sensitive area of wetlands and farm fields.

The revised plan, which has received preliminary approval from local government, allows a conference center, hotel, golf course and retail complex within the 1,000-foot zone.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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