The Queen Anne's County farmland that state and local officials spent $5 million to preserve this week could not have been developed in the foreseeable future because it can't handle septic systems and it is not connected to public water and sewer lines, county officials said yesterday.
"It would not be developed -- it could not be developed -- without water and sewer," said John E. Nickerson, the county's director of environmental health.
There are public water and sewer lines about a half-mile from the 270-acre Grasonville tract, but the county has no plans to extend those lines to the property.
And county health officials say the land can't be developed using septic systems because soil tests show the water tables are too high. Those tests, commonly called percolation or "perc tests," are a benchmark for whether rural properties can be developed.
"If the property doesn't perc, and you cannot get public sewer to it, it usually severely limits its value, and that's a fact," Nickerson said.
Three county commissioners defended the purchase yesterday as necessary to guarantee that the land will be preserved from development in the future.
They said that while the current board is unlikely to extend water and sewer lines to land it wants to preserve, a future board might decide otherwise.
"Now, it's preserved in perpetuity," said Commissioner Gene Ransom, a Democrat.
But a spokesman for Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said yesterday that the state Board of Public Works should have been made aware of the soil tests before it voted last month to approve the use of state Open Space money for the purchase.
"These tests are evidence that the state overpaid for the land," said Franchot spokesman Joseph Shapiro. Franchot, who sits on the three-member board, tried unsuccessfully to delay this week's settlement of the sale.
The state is providing $4.6 million in Open Space money and the county is putting in $400,000 to pay for the land, which is part of a property known as the Kudner Farm. The deal has drawn criticism because the $5 million selling price is more than either of two appraisals of the land, which put its value at $3.6 million or $4.6 million.
Franchot and others have also questioned the deal because of connections between the seller and high-ranking state officials.
The property was purchased from U.S. Land Alliance, a for-profit company run by David Sutherland. Sutherland, a former vice president at the nonprofit Conservation Fund, has long known Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, who recommended state approval of the deal.
At Griffin's invitation, Sutherland served on an environmental work group that was part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's transition team. And Griffin did consulting work on the Kudner Farm property for Sutherland's company before he became natural resources secretary.
Griffin, in a written response last week to questions from Franchot, said he did not know whether the land had been tested for septic system suitability.
"We are not aware if percolation tests have been completed. If so, that would be information taken into account by the appraisers if available to them," Griffin's response said.
Griffin's staff said he was not available for comment yesterday.
Officials in Queen Anne's County, which will hold title to the property, have said they felt the $5 million price was high, but they wanted the land and Sutherland would not drop his price.
The county plans to use about half the property for farming and the other half for camping, hiking and recreational space.
It's not clear that either of the state appraisals considered the soil tests in determining value.
The $3.6 million appraisal noted that the property was not connected to a public water or sewer system.
The second appraisal, for $4.6 million, justified the higher price by saying that the tract could be linked to water and sewer and was therefore suitable for development or for use as a sports complex. These appraisers appeared not to know that the county already had the results of percolation tests; the appraisal said such tests would be necessary to determine whether septic systems were feasible.
Results of the percolation tests, which were conducted before Sutherland bought the property, have been available at the county's environmental health office. Nickerson said he would have been glad to share the information with the appraisers, but nobody asked.
"It's not unusual for appraisers to call me and ask me about the perc status of a property," Nickerson said. "I didn't get any calls on this one."
Another Queen Anne's County land deal received extensive scrutiny at yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting. The Department of Natural Resources proposed spending $7.2 million to purchase 74 acres of land, most of which is zoned for industrial use.