State plans to preserve 9,200 acres

O'Malley announces land deals and interactive Web-based map to outline goals

December 04, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

In a move hailed by conservation leaders, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced plans yesterday to buy five large tracts of forest, farmland and waterfront for more than $71 million to preserve them from development and enhance public access to the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor disclosed the deals to acquire more than 9,200 acres in Cecil, Charles, St. Mary's and Worcester counties as he unveiled a new computerized map of Maryland's environmentally valuable lands, which he said would become the centerpiece of the state's conservation efforts.

"GreenPrint," as the interactive map is called, will "help us make choices about our open space," he said.

The five properties in line to be purchased have some of the richest bird and wildlife habitat in Maryland and more than 19 miles of shoreline along the Potomac River, officials said. One tract, 4,800 acres in Worcester County, is the largest privately owned forest in the state, according to Nat Williams, Maryland director of the Nature Conservancy, which helped negotiate the deal.

Four other tracts of woodlands, fields and wetlands in Cecil, Charles and St. Mary's counties have been owned since the early 1600s by the Roman Catholic Jesuit order. Their purchase was arranged with the help of the Conservation Fund, another national land preservation group. The fund's Pat Noonan said the land deals represent "a once and forever opportunity."

If approved by the Board of Public Works, the five tracts would double the amount of land acquired by the state for preservation since O'Malley took office nearly two years ago. He campaigned on a pledge to revive the state's land conservation efforts.

In announcing the deals, O'Malley acknowledged that the state and nation are struggling economically, and news leaked yesterday that he had decided to furlough state employees to close a budget gap. But O'Malley said it was important to seize opportunities like this.

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin noted that the funds for the land come mainly from taxes paid on property sales that are earmarked by law for open-space preservation. About $5 million of the purchase will be financed with federal transportation funds, he said.

Some recent land preservation deals have proven controversial, with critics saying the state had agreed to pay more than the property was worth. Griffin said the prices for the five properties were based on independent real estate appraisals. The Worcester tract is going for about $3,000 per acre, while the four Jesuit properties - three of them with waterfront - would cost about $12,000 per acre.

All five tracts score highly on an environmental rating system that his department has developed, Griffin said. The Worcester tract, surrounded by about 10,000 preserved acres, is home to a wide variety of forest-dwelling birds, as well as those that spend their winters in Central and South America, such as the Baltimore oriole.

The other tracts combine natural value with historical and economic significance. In Cecil, there are about 975 acres of forest and meadows. In Charles, 1,700 acres on Port Tobacco Creek may help buffer the Army's Blossom Point proving ground from encroaching development. And in St. Mary's, 985 acres on St. Inigoes peninsula would shelter the Navy's Webster airfield from development, while another 776 acres on Newtowne Neck was the site of one of the nation's first universities, a forerunner to Georgetown University founded by the Jesuits in 1677.

Environmentalists praised the O'Malley administration for moving to preserve the tracts.

"They're not making any more land," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Anything you can protect for tomorrow is a legacy."

O'Malley also announced that his administration would be doling out $13.5 million this year in Rural Legacy grants to 20 different counties for local land preservation efforts.

About 21 percent of the state's land has been developed, O'Malley noted, and a comparable share has been preserved. But pavement is spreading across the landscape at a rate five times faster than Maryland's population has grown, he said, calling that an unsustainable trend.

He said the "GreenPrint" map, which can zoom into lot-by-lot land use while also providing detailed information about recent state purchases, should help local officials in making growth plans. The public can see the map at www.greenprint.maryland.gov.

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