Look, then leap

August 05, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp made the right decision last week in approving the state purchase of a 74-acre waterfront tract on the northern tip of Kent Island known as Love Point.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot's concerns about the $7.2 million purchase price deserved careful review but did not justify a decision by the Board of Public Works to reject the deal once appraisers were satisfied.

As The Sun's Greg Garland reported, a critical feature of Maryland's open space program is that it has a dedicated revenue source and is nimble enough to take advantage of the opportunity to acquire choice parcels when their owners want to sell.

Mr. Franchot's notion that Maryland should have a master plan of properties it would like to own and then acquire them on a priority basis as they become available simply isn't practical.

The goal of the open space program is to preserve from development relatively pristine, often wooded areas that support wildlife habitat and play a role in cleansing the air and water that runs into the Chesapeake Bay. There's no timing a market like that. When such tracts are offered at a reasonable price, state officials must leap.

In fact, there's a good bit of catch-up work to do after the years in which former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. shifted receipts from the transfer tax that finances open space purchases into other categories of government spending.

Surely, the state of the bay signals great urgency. The condition of the bay - one of the nation's most polluted estuaries - is expected to deteriorate further as population grows, adding to the housing and sewage treatment burden, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Love Point tract is not entirely pristine; the current owners will continue for five years to operate a dredging and marine transport business out of docking facilities there. But those facilities also offer exciting prospects for future public use. Most intriguing might be resurrection of the ferry service that ran between Baltimore and Love Point during the early 20th century.

Another $198 million in land purchases (often proposed by county governments that share in their cost) are being reviewed by state agencies for possible recommendation to the Board of Public Works.

Whatever good deals they find should be swiftly snapped up. For the long-term future of the bay and the state's economy, there could hardly be a better investment.

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