Timetable for land purchase a concern

January is deadline as Md. tries to save tract near Blackwater

November 16, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,sun reporter

Environmental groups yesterday praised the Ehrlich administration's agreement -- announced a day before the election -- to spend up to $10 million preserving two-thirds of the farmland targeted for a sprawling subdivision near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County.

But the memorandum of understanding with the Blackwater Resort developer, which was released this week, includes a requirement that the state's purchase of 754 acres be approved by the state Board of Public Works before Ehrlich leaves office in January.

The timetable worries Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley and Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will also review the transaction. Six weeks might not be enough time for a thorough analysis, according to Conway and a spokesman for O'Malley.

"On its face, it is cause for concern," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said of the proposed schedule. "You are looking at a busy time. ... We've got to sit down with the Ehrlich administration and the developers and figure out what exactly the reasoning is here."

Still, O'Malley likes the concept of preserving the land, having urged Ehrlich to take the step last month, Abbruzzese said.

Representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a local anti-sprawl group called Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth said the state should move ahead with the preservation purchase because without it, developer Duane Zentgraf could build 2,700 homes instead of 675.

"Generally speaking, we would prefer to have all 1,080 acres preserved," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But preserving 70 percent of it is something that the state should do and look at it as a step forward."

Charles Evans, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the developer -- not the Ehrlich administration -- was pushing for the deal to be concluded before the election. The developer was concerned that a change in administrations could add uncertainty and delays to the project, he said.

"Nobody comes out a 100 percent winner in this, but for the most part, everybody feels comfortable with it," Evans said. "To buy the whole development site would have been astronomically expensive. And would that have solved the community's needs for solid economic growth?"

The proposed land sale must be approved by Jan 2, according to the legal document signed by state officials and the developer. The settlement must occur by March 1, and the agreement could be negated if Cambridge does not approve the zoning needed for construction.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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