Cambridge -- The Ehrlich administration announced yesterday that it plans to spend $10.4 million to preserve about two-thirds of a contested development site near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The effort to save 754 acres of Eastern Shore farmland marks a change in direction for the administration, which previously declined to get involved in what it called a mostly local land-use decision.
The purchase agreement will still allow developer Duane Zentgraf to build more than 600 homes, marketed to senior citizens, on 326 acres of farmland on the southern fringe of this city.
That's less than a quarter of the homes proposed in Zentgraf's original 1,080-acre Blackwater Resort project, which sparked seven lawsuits and a campaign to stop it by a coalition of farmers and environmentalists. But some environmentalists said they were disappointed that the entire development has not been stopped.
The announcement came a day before the gubernatorial election, timing that Maryland Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said was "coincidental."
"This has been very intense since August, that's the reality," Franks, speaking at a news conference here, said of negotiations to buy the land. "DNR has tried to be a mediator to get people to the table. We reached an agreement on Friday, and we wanted to go ahead," he said.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which collected 37,000 signatures on petitions urging the governor to preserve the land, said he had hoped that the governor would save the entire site.
"We haven't seen the details of this agreement, but once we do, we can determine if we can withdraw our seven lawsuits, and if this will protect the wildlife refuge," said Baker, who did not attend the announcement.
Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said it's good some of the proposed development site is being preserved, but she called the administration's reversal a "crassly political ... election ploy" by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Is this the kind of governor we want, one who will do this at the last minute, or one who will do the right thing the first time?" Schwartz asked.
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said Ehrlich was "thrilled" with the deal. "We are preserving hundreds and hundreds of sensitive acres of land for the goal of preserving the Little Blackwater River, and it's something every Marylander can be proud of," Fawell said.
He said the state's proposed purchase of the land was kept "private" until recently so that the "intensive discussions" with the developer wouldn't be jeopardized.
Under the agreement, the state would purchase 754 acres from Zentgraf using money from Maryland's open space preservation program. The sale would have to be approved next year by the state Board of Public Works, which will include a new comptroller and perhaps a new governor. The state's natural resources agency declined yesterday to release the agreement with the developer.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving open space, said yesterday that Ehrlich could have saved taxpayers $10 million by opposing the project "much, much" earlier.
"It's great that this humongous development is not going to be built on this frail land," Perkins said. "I think it could have been done saving the taxpayers $10 million, by using the state's Office of Smart Growth to say we are not going to allow this kind of growth on sensitive land."
In June last year, the Ehrlich administration concurred with Cambridge's decision to designate the development site as a "priority funding area" appropriate for growth. Under Maryland's Smart Growth Act of 1997, the administration instead could have told Cambridge that it would not provide any state money for road construction, sewers and other infrastructure for the development.
Some members of the General Assembly tried this year to block much of the project through legislation. But Ehrlich's appointed chairman of the state Critical Area Commission testified against the growth-control measure, and the bill was ultimately defeated.
Zach Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said the timing of yesterday's announcement could have an influence on some undecided voters in what appears to be a tight gubernatorial race.
"Part of Ehrlich's effort all along has been to try to break himself apart from the national Republican Party," Messitte said. "This does play nicely into the image Ehrlich has tried to cultivate."
Ehrlich's opponent in today's election, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, co-signed a letter with former Gov. Harry Hughes on Oct. 5 urging Ehrlich to preserve the Blackwater land.