The `knuckleheads' prevail

November 13, 2006

The titan arum is a rare plant with a beautiful flower and a repulsive odor. It is not native to Dorchester County, but it sure seemed as though it had an overwhelming presence at a ceremony last week outside Cambridge when the Ehrlich administration announced that the state will spend $10 million to purchase more than two-thirds of farmland targeted for a luxury mega-development.

For the ecological sake of the fragile Little Blackwater River and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge that it flows into, using tax dollars to rescue the land from the developer's paw is a positive step, maybe even the only action that could save the open space from encroaching sprawl. Dorchester officials, who will face the loss of income when 754 acres are removed from the property tax rolls, may disagree. But there never was a good reason for building Blackwater Resort, a complex of 2,700 homes, a golf course and a hotel and conference center, on land that only the short-sighted refused to acknowledge is crucial to the protection of wetlands and habitat.

The purchase agreement gives developer Duane Zentgraf the right to build more than 600 homes on the remaining 326 acres of land the state will not buy.

The malodorous air wafting around the land deal announcement emanated from a clutch of elected officeholders who showed up to celebrate - conveniently on the day before the general election - but who didn't want to be reminded that previously they had performed back flips to prevent anyone from standing in the way of the development. Dorchester's own state senator, Richard F. Colburn, told outsiders opposing the project not to meddle in the matter because it was a local issue. A lawyer for the developer called opponents "Birkenstock knuckleheads." And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. showed so little interest this past summer that we wondered if he was even aware of the mounting brouhaha.

What happened in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's balloting that compelled the politicians to join the ranks of the "knuckleheads"? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gathered 37,000 signatures on a petition urging the governor to preserve the property. More than 4,000 e-mails opposing the project landed in the in-basket of the state Critical Area Commission, which ultimately concluded that the developer's plans ignored safeguards to the threatened environment. And the Ehrlich administration, aiming to paint the governor green just before the election, reached deeply into Project Open Space funds to come up with the money.

State officials claimed that the timing of the land deal announcement was merely coincidence, that it had nothing to do with the election. While we conditionally support the purchase - did it really have to take so much time and money? - something in the air tells us it was no coincidence.

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