Open Space purchase debated

Amid Shore deal, some question how state chooses, buys

August 01, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN REPORTER

Department of Natural Resources officials say the state ought to buy a 74-acre parcel at the northern tip of Kent Island - known as Love Point - because it is unique, offers deep-water access for boaters and has historical significance as the main docking point for a ferry that shuttled passengers between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore in the decades before the Bay Bridge opened.

But others say the proposed $7.2 million deal for the Langenfelder Marine property - a dusty, industrial waterfront site - raises broader concerns about how the state handles land purchases under Program Open Space.

The program gets tens of millions of dollars annually for land preservation through a dedicated portion of state transfer taxes on real estate transactions. Though the agency says it has a process to identify and evaluate sites it wants to buy, some question whether the agency responds too much to what sellers bring forward instead of targeting acquisitions that the state identifies as best serving the public interest.

"I just wish I could be convinced we're not reacting too much to what happens to be on the market and that we're doing enough proactively to go after the properties we need," said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, whose opinion carries considerable weight.

As a member of the Board of Public Works, she casts one of three votes that will decide whether the sale goes through - an issue on the agenda for today's meeting.

The proposal to buy the Langenfelder property was put on hold at the board's July 22 meeting after Comptroller Peter Franchot noted the price and other concerns and balked at voting to approve the deal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose administration is proposing to buy the site, is the board's third member.

Company proposal

Kopp noted that the deal was proposed by the property's owners, Atchafalaya Holdings LLC, and did not originate with the state. Records show that company representatives approached Natural Resources officials in the waning days of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration and that the proposal moved forward under O'Malley.

Kopp said in an interview that she is reviewing the deal and that it appears to be a reasonable proposal to buy and preserve a unique piece of waterfront property for public use. But she said the state should do more to coordinate and set priorities for land purchases under Open Space and other programs, such as Rural Legacy and Agricultural Land Preservation.

Franchot declined a request for an interview, but a spokesman, Joseph Shapiro, said the comptroller has problems with the proposal.

"His concerns are the high cost of the land, especially now during a deficit debate; the use of Open Space money on a marine industrial site that will remain active for at least five years; and the apparent lack of a comprehensive, statewide strategy for the [Open Space] program right now," Shapiro said.

Model program

Richard J. Dolesh, public policy director for the Ashburn, Va.-based National Recreation and Park Association, said Maryland is one of just eight states that have a dedicated source of funding to acquire land for preservation, and he spoke admiringly of its program.

"We hold Maryland up as a model for the nation. They have a terrific program," said Dolesh, whose nonprofit group advocates for parks, recreation and environmental conservation. From 1999 to 2001, he worked for a unit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that dealt with wildlife preservation.

Dolesh said it is important for states to be "flexible and nimble" in purchasing desirable property as it becomes available and Maryland has a record of doing that.

"One reason [the program] works so well is that it is a pay-go program and tied to the rate of real estate development," Dolesh said. "As land is bought and sold and subdivided, the tax generates more money to buy more land for conservation."

Maryland has spent $97.4 million acquiring land under Program Open Space over the past five years, records show. Local governments get tens of millions of dollars more that they can use to buy land for tennis courts, baseball fields or similar recreational purposes.

James W. "Chip" Price, who manages Program Open Space, said the Langenfelder site fits some of the program's key objectives - restoring the bay and protecting the environment - and would be a worthwhile purchase.

Although the owners would lease and continue to operate their dredging and marine transport business on about 12 acres - including docking facilities and sections where shell, stone and equipment are stored - other parts could be used for water trails and recreational purposes, he said.

After the lease expires, the state would have deep-water access to the bay for public use, he said.

"Just because it doesn't look perfect and pristine right now doesn't mean it isn't a valuable piece of land that can be restored," Price said.

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