Environmental groups press O'Malley on protecting land

Glendening, Ehrlich diverted open space funds to fill budget gaps

December 13, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Maryland environmental advocates backed Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley at the polls this year, and now say they want him to make good on his promises to protect open space.

The state's nationally recognized land preservation programs took a hit over the last several years when Govs. Parris N. Glendening and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. diverted $480 million in open space funds to fill budget shortfalls. With more budget problems on the horizon, leaders of several environmental groups gathered yesterday to make sure O'Malley doesn't follow in his predecessors' footsteps.

"This election demonstrated that Marylanders are extremely concerned about growth and land conservation," said Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "Voters who cared about our environment supported Gov.-elect O'Malley and conservation-minded candidates for the General Assembly."

When O'Malley takes office, he will face two situations that could make his campaign promises to preserve open space and farms difficult.

One is the return of projected $1 billion-a-year budget deficits, and the other is the population boom Maryland is expected to experience as a result of a federal military base realignment. Maryland is in line to get tens of thousands of new residents in the years ahead, which environmentalists fear could lead to sprawl.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said using the state's dedicated open space funds for their intended purpose was No. 7 in the 10-point plan that was the backbone of the governor-elect's campaign stump speech.

"The money is there, and the goal is to fully fund it," Abbruzzese said. "During the transition we continue to work through the budget as new revenue projections come in, but it was a priority during the campaign."

Representatives from the six environmental groups who organized yesterday's news conference - Environment Maryland, Partners for Open Space, the League of Conservation Voters, the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy - said the state cannot afford to divert more from open space funds and needs to more aggressively channel development in appropriate ways.

Marcia Verploegen Lewis, director of Partners for Open Space, said the state's main mechanism for preserving land, Program Open Space, was elegantly designed to keep pace with rising property values. Because it is funded by a tax on real estate transactions, money for open space grew along with the value of the land in need of preservation.

But because Glendening and Ehrlich diverted money from that dedicated fund to balance the budget, "land preservation pretty much ground to a halt," she said, leaving Maryland about 100,000 acres behind where it could have been.

At the same time, the environmentalists said, development has been allowed to continue in sensitive areas, threatening some of the state's resources.

The groups released a report yesterday highlighting seven places around the state that are threatened by development, including the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, the Prettyboy Reservoir in Baltimore County and the Annapolis Neck in Anne Arundel County.

"We're losing our farmland and losing our forests at an alarming rate, and that rate is only going to grow stronger," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, staff attorney for Environment Maryland.

Terry Cummings, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland advocacy and outreach manager, said the state needs to start regional planning to make sure the environmental and social impact of growth is fully understood.

"It's really a choice about whether we want to be content to live in a rational, safe way ... or be content with overcrowded schools, clogged roads, fewer and fewer farms, a degraded environment and a very sick bay," Cummings said.

Abbruzzese said O'Malley supports the principles behind Glendening's creation of the state Office of Smart Growth, effectively abolished under Ehrlich. The incoming governor intends to give the state a strong oversight role in planning for the development that will accompany the military realignment, Abbruzzese said.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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