Is the land worth the price?

Md. pays $6.5 million to preserve parcel that was unlikely to be developed

October 14, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

The Ehrlich administration is paying $6.5 million to buy more than 500 acres on the Eastern Shore so the land can be preserved as open space. But county officials say the property is largely wetlands that could not have been developed in the first place - and local developers say it is worth only a fraction of what the state is paying.

According to Worcester County records, about 70 percent of the 572-acre tract along Assawoman Bay at the Delaware line is marsh that could not be developed under state law.

The rest of the land, known as the Weidman Farm, is cropland and woodland that is so remote it has no access to county water and sewer service. County records show the property is equipped for only one septic system, which is being used for the one home on the farm.

John E. Bloxom, president of the Worcester County commissioners, said the property's zoning allows only five houses to be built - and even that's unlikely because of septic limitations.

"It would be a fair assessment that it was not threatened by development," said Bloxom, a Republican.

Tom Halverstadt agreed. "It is, for all intents and purposes, not developable property," said Halverstadt, vice president of the Carl Freeman Cos., which has built homes nearby.

Critics say the state ought to be using its Open Space money for land that is truly threatened.

"They paid way too much for it," said Gene Parker, who owns a Worcester County real estate firm. "You've got all that wetlands. You can't use it anyways. Why buy something you already have control of?"

Other developers estimated the land's value at about $2 million.

Ehrlich administration officials defend the purchase, noting that two appraisals concluded that the land is worth what the state is paying. And they point out that the property is one of the last undeveloped parcels in a rapidly growing county.

"We're tickled to get this piece, to be honest with you," said Chip Price, director of Program Open Space at the state Department of Natural Resources. "It's hard to get the big hunks of land like that."

The state entered into the deal this year as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was making his land preservation record part of his re-election campaign. The governor says he has preserved more than 60,000 acres of land since taking office, though environmentalists have sharply criticized him for using state Open Space money to pay for other programs during his first three years in office.

His administration also endured harsh criticism in 2004 for a plan, later dropped, to sell more than 800 acres of preserved land in Southern Maryland to a politically connected developer for a below-market price.

In August, Ehrlich held a news conference at the Weidman property praising the purchase and Worcester County for working with the state on the deal. Administration officials asked the county to chip in $200,000 of its state Open Space allocation to help pay for the land, which the state will turn over to the county to run as a park and environmental center.

Bloxom said the deal is good for the county because it could never have afforded the land on its own. But the commissioner said he is concerned about how park users will gain access to the property, which is bounded by privately owned land. The state says the Weidman property has a right of way allowing access through the neighboring property, though the landowner disputes that.

The state Board of Public Works approved the purchase last month, and settlement is expected by Nov. 20.

Douglas Weidman, a developer from Lancaster County, Pa., says he wanted to preserve the land - the site of his father's one-time hunting lodge.

He had already sold his Pennsylvania farm to three land trusts to use as an environmental center, he said, and he was hoping to do something similar on the Maryland property. He had been letting the Maryland Coastal Bays Program use the property for canoe trips and other educational activities.

"I used to stand out there and say, `Let's listen to the land. What would it have us do to make things right?' I'm still doing that," Weidman said.

In 2001, he applied to a state program administered by Worcester County to sell development rights to the property. But county officials told him that only 30 percent of the tract - the portion that isn't marsh - would be eligible for compensation, and Weidman decided not to proceed.

Weidman says that more recently, Halverstadt's company was interested in his property. Halverstadt said he did talk to Weidman about two years ago about buying the farm - but only to use as open space. "When we were talking to Mr. Weidman, we really had no interest in building homes," Halverstadt said.

The Weidman property came to the state's attention last year, according to Price of the Open Space program.

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