Uneven preservation record

Early deficits, philosophy lead to drop in land grants under Ehrlich

September 24, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

On the campaign trail, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. boasts that he has preserved more than 60,000 acres of land since taking office almost four years ago.

"One in five acres in Maryland today is in permanent easement protection -- that's a big deal," he said last week.

What he doesn't say is that his administration has preserved a fraction as much land as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made land conservation a signature policy. Maryland protected 220,000 acres from development under Glendening in the four years before Ehrlich became governor, and more than 80,000 acres during the Democrat's first term, according to state agencies.

The drop under Ehrlich, a Republican, came in part because he took office during an economic downturn and diverted money from Maryland's main land preservation program to balance the state budget.

But Ehrlich also made clear early in his administration that he was philosophically opposed to buying as much land as Glendening did and said he wouldn't do so "even if we had a billion-dollar surplus."

"This is a fundamentally different administration," Ehrlich said in October 2003 when he called a temporary halt to some preservation programs.

After a news conference Monday on a Monkton farm where Ehrlich announced $26 million in land preservation grants, the governor said he did not know how his overall preservation record stacked up against his predecessor's. But he said his hands were tied by a deficit in his first years in office.

"The first two years we were $4 billion in deficit, and we don't get to print money. We didn't have a dollar to spend, obviously, anywhere," Ehrlich said. "But during the last two years, we've seen a dramatic improvement as the economy has improved."

The administration this year is meeting the spending guidelines outlined in a 1969 law and fully funding Project Open Space, a state program that pays for parkland and conservation agreements. The previous three years, the administration underfunded the program by more than $400 million, according to Partners for Open Space, a watchdog group.

Glendening, in contrast, received praise from conservationists -- and criticism from some budget-watchers -- for making the biggest land purchases in state history, including paying $29 million to buy 58,000 Eastern Shore acres from a lumber company in 2001.

Glendening also created new land programs, including Rural Legacy, which is designed to save farmland from development. The grants Ehrlich announced Monday were from this program.

About 19 percent of Maryland's 6.7 million acres of land has been developed, while another 19 percent has been preserved as parks or wildlife refuges or is private land with easements that prohibit building, according to a recent state report.

That leaves more than 60 percent of the state -- including millions of acres of farms, forests and wetlands -- vulnerable to sprawl, said Marcia Verploegen Lewis of Partners for Open Space, a coalition of 140 environmental groups.

"Two-thirds of the state is up for grabs, and what do we want Maryland to look like? Do we want it all developed?" Lewis asked. "Or do we also want working farms, forests, parks and habitat for animals?"

Lewis said past administrations also diverted real-estate transfer tax money intended for Program Open Space, the state's main land preservation program, which was created 37 years ago. But Ehrlich has raided this fund more consistently than any other governor, she said.

Ehrlich suggested at the beginning of his term that he would seek to limit land preservation spending to properties near the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The comments worried environmentalists, who pointed out that development throughout the state pollutes the bay.

But there is no evidence that the Ehrlich administration has focused a greater percentage of its land preservation close to the bay. Chip Price, director of the state's Program Open Space office, said last week that his agency has used much of the same criteria for preserving land as the last administration but has added "a couple more twists."

When the state buys land now, it puts an extra emphasis on trying to create partnerships with local governments to rebuild eroding streambanks and expand wetlands, and add public boat ramps and hiking trails, Price said.

"The goal is not just to buy land and tie it up," Price said, "but to do conservation programs and recreational programs at the same time."

Brad Heavner, director of an advocacy group called Environment Maryland, said Ehrlich is trying to get the public to forget his administration's aborted effort two years ago to sell more than 800 acres of preserved land in Southern Maryland to a politically connected builder.

"He clearly feels vulnerable on the issue, and for good reason," Heavner said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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