Franchot, Kopp OK on land plan

2 Board of Public Works members had faulted state's purchasing approach as too haphazard

August 23, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Two Board of Public Works members said they are satisfied that Gov. Martin O'Malley's plans for prioritizing open-space purchases will ensure that the state is protecting its most valuable ecological resources.

After two recent deals in Queen Anne's County, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp had questioned whether the state's approach to buying land was too haphazard, relying on whatever parcels property owners offered rather than a strategic vision for protecting the environment. But they said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin's presentation of his idea for a statistics-driven system of prioritizing land buys should help solve the problem.

"It now looks like we're at the point where the program is getting structure and rigor," Kopp said.

Franchot said the board still will need to scrutinize individual purchases, but he called Griffin's plan "a strong vision." Griffin was appointed by O'Malley, who is the third Board of Public Works member.

"Obviously, we've always prioritized our purchases, but this is really a step forward to ensure that our open-space dollars are spent on our top priorities," Franchot said.

Griffin's plan updates a set of criteria that he established a decade ago during a previous stint as Department of Natural Resources secretary. The new criteria include more consideration of rare species, water quality and other factors.

The department then will use new computer-mapping technology to apply those criteria to land statewide to identify the most promising areas. State conservation workers would then make an "in-the-weeds, hiking-boots-on- the-ground" assessment of individual parcels so the state can develop a priority list.

"The transparency it will eventually give to this whole process is very important," Kopp said.

However, Kopp, Franchot and the governor agreed that more work remains to be done. Although the new system, which will be modified after the public has a chance to comment on it, will guide purchases for the Department of Natural Resources, it won't solve a lack of coordination between Program Open Space and the state's other preservation programs, which are run by other departments.

"That's always been an aspiration that has not been realized," Griffin said. "It remains an aspiration."

O'Malley said the next step will be getting other state land-preservation efforts, such as the Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and the Rural Legacy Program, on the same technological platform.

"Right now, there's no map that I can access that has these priority areas color-coded," O'Malley said. "Everything should relate to the same coordinates on the same map."

Marcia Verploegen Lewis, director of Partners for Open Space, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said the administration appears to be on the right track. The idea of getting the state's land-preservation programs to work together is particularly important, she said.

"The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation - they get 17 percent of the real estate transfer tax," Lewis said. "They do easements, and that's land preservation, too. It's keeping the land from being developed, and getting all these groups to work together and look to one plan for what we want to do is crucial."

O'Malley promised during last year's gubernatorial campaign to establish a better system of evaluating land for purchase, and Griffin began the effort in February through the BayStat program, a statistical evaluation of Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.

However, the issue became more pressing in recent weeks, as Franchot questioned two Queen Anne's County land deals, saying he believed that the administration was paying too much for tracts that had limited ecological value or were under little threat of development.

Although Kopp voted in favor of both purchases, she questioned the ad hoc system by which the state buys land. Because the state does not use its condemnation powers, it relies on finding willing buyers. In both cases that Franchot objected to, the property owners brought proposals for sale to the state, not the other way around.

The board resolved to reconsider another aspect of the recent land deals that Franchot found troubling - a rule that prevents the state from negotiating a price below a piece of land's appraised value.

Sheila McDonald, the board's executive secretary, said that policy has been in place since the 1970s to prevent the state from taking advantage of property owners.

Griffin said people occasionally offer to sell land to the state for below its appraised value as a means to get tax deductions.

"Generally that doesn't happen," Griffin said. "Sellers generally want to maximize the value of their land. We have to rely on willing sellers who have a conservation motive coming forward."

O'Malley asked Griffin to consult with attorneys for the state to determine whether that policy could be changed.

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