The land equation

August 29, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan unveiled last week to more clearly delineate and quantify the reasoning behind state land purchases is a sensible approach. Certainly, Program Open Space has proved its worth over the years. By setting aside a portion of real estate transfer taxes for land conservation, the state has been able to buy tens of thousands of acres of land for public use - and to prevent private misuse.

But as the recent brouhaha over Open Space purchases on Kent Island has demonstrated, such decisions can easily become controversial. Why any individual property is considered for purchase - particularly as the terms and cost of the deal are wrestled with - can easily become obscured. There is no single standard by which land should be set aside, nor should there be.

Consider the numerous ways Program Open Space money has been used in the past. It has helped preserve Civil War battlefields, created ballfields for budding athletes, kept pristine wetlands from destruction and protected a lot of farmland from development. Some purchases have greatly benefited efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay, while others have helped preserve the habitat of threatened species in upland areas, some outside the bay watershed.

What Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin must now do is develop a detailed data-driven system that not only maps out all the land that might be purchased but also evaluates the potential importance of each parcel by a variety of factors. Some standards might still be subjective (aesthetics have always been in the eye of the beholder), but surely many of these criteria can be translated into hard numbers.

That will not only make clear the justifications behind any Open Space land purchase but also force the state to set clear priorities. And in so doing, it should squeeze out potential abuses and favoritism in the system.

Even so, there will always be times when state and local officials will have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes, owners will be in the market to sell land now and not later. In those cases, Mr. Griffin and others will face a choice - buy it now or risk losing it forever. That, too, will simply have to be part of the equation.

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