Deal to lease land is delayed

Pratt questions mayor's plan to add UB acreage to park system

September 21, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,sun reporter

Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to add a significant swath of open space to Baltimore's park system hit a snag yesterday as Comptroller Joan M. Pratt questioned the $6.2 million plan and its political motivations.

O'Malley had wanted the city's five-member spending board to vote yesterday on leasing 48 acres of University of Baltimore land in Mount Washington, a plan that he unveiled Monday and that dovetailed with his gubernatorial campaign's strategy this week to focus on the environment.

O'Malley has sought to highlight the lease as proof that his administration is more serious about preserving open space than his Republican rival, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich's campaign said the city should not be proud of its claims that the tentative lease deal is Baltimore's first major acquisition of parkland in about 30 years.

"By the city's own admission, O'Malley hasn't done anything significant with parkland acquisition in seven years," until just before the election, said Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.

In addition to the political criticism, Pratt -- a member of the five-member Board of Estimates -- raised enough questions about the deal that she persuaded the rest of the board to defer a vote for one week. She wants more time to study the tentative 80-year lease that she said she was asked to "rubber stamp" without proper review.

"It was ridiculous," Pratt said of the timing. "Conceptually, it seems to be a good deal."

She questioned O'Malley's frequent claim of running an "open and transparent" government given that his administration was in private negotiations for nearly a year and gave her only days to review the lease.

Pratt said she believes politics are partly to blame for the push for a quick vote -- and O'Malley's comments yesterday seemed to confirm her suspicion.

The mayor told Pratt that he wanted the board to approve the deal yesterday so the university could present the issue to the state Board of Public Works' meeting Oct. 4. Yesterday was the deadline to be included on the agenda for the state board -- which also must approve the deal -- and university officials wanted the city's backing first.

A delay would cause concern among university officials but was unlikely to kill the deal, university President Robert L. Bogomolny told the board.

O'Malley said he feared that if the process was delayed further, the lease might not go before the state board until after the Nov. 7 election. The mayor said that if he is unable to unseat Ehrlich, then the incumbent might scuttle the deal. "We have a governor with little respect for open space," O'Malley said in the meeting.

But Pratt questioned the logic of the mayor's calculation. "It's the same governor right now," she said. Pratt asked why Ehrlich, who sits on the public works board, would scuttle a plan if he wins re-election but not in October before the vote.

O'Malley then withdrew the argument, but some observers said it shows a possible motivation for getting the deal done before Nov. 7 -- to tempt Ehrlich into blocking it so the mayor can continue his criticism of the governor's open-space policies.

"I can't say if it's a campaign stunt," DeLeaver said. "If it is, it will backfire given that the Ehrlich administration has preserved 70,000 acres of Maryland's landscape, which is an area larger than Baltimore City."

Pratt wanted the administration to explain why the city was paying $6.2 million over five years for land it would be leasing for 80 years. The deal states that if the university decides to sell the land after five years, it would have to pay back the city's rent.

"With interest?" Pratt asked.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that the city would not be paid interest but that the priority of the deal was to preserve open space. To achieve that, the university needed an incentive not to sell the land to developers who have been interested in building townhouses on the site.

Bogomolny said the money will enable the school to finance expansion to accommodate freshmen. He said the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents has been pressuring him for years to act on the land.

He said a delay would be "very undesirable."

O'Malley agreed to defer the vote to give Pratt more time only after Bogomolny said the university could ask for a state hearing Oct. 4, so long as the city provided a letter stating the item would be approved next

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