ANNAPOLIS – There is a detailed and trustworthy process in place to identify the state’s excess land, planning officials said Tuesday at a hearing called to shed light on controversial public land transactions.
The House Environmental Matters Committee and the House Transportation and the Environment Subcommittee were briefed on the origin of the Department of Natural Resources’ list of 2,900 acres of potentially excess land, which has attracted substantial attention in the past few weeks.
“It was very, very in depth, very intense,” said Audrey Scott, secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning, of the inventory process that led to the DNR list.
Those testifying tried to reinstill public confidence in a process under scrutiny since the conclusion in early November of the state’s plan to sell 836 acres of St. Mary’s County forest land to a construction magnate at cost.
“No state parks or forests have been identified in this exercise for disposal,” said DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks, stressing that less than 1 percent of the land reviewed was deemed potential excess.
And much of the state land, said Gene Piotrowski, DNR’s resource planning director, was listed because it could be managed better by local governments. Those properties, he said, included Matthew Henson State Park in Montgomery County and a piece of Patapsco Valley State Park in Carroll County.
Compiling the list, said Piotrowski, “was daunting, but we looked upon it as a challenge – something that was good business.”
But the process deserves more input, said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, Environmental Matters chairwoman.
“We need more participation of the Legislature and the public,” she said.
She conceded that an “anomaly” in the process – the controversial St. Mary’s land deal – had sparked the hearing.
“There’s a process,” she said, “and we want to make sure there are no anomalies.”
Delegate Mary Dulany-James, D-Harford, also warned that the scattered properties composing that 1 percent are still valuable.
“I think it has much larger meaning in the community in which it’s situated,” she said, calling for better-defined criteria for identifying excess land candidates.
That set of criteria now pinpoints land that has minimal natural resource value, poor access and high maintenance costs – criteria Dulaney-James called “broad” and “generalized.”
The Department of Planning’s overall land inventory, said Scott, was initiated to update an inventory that “was totally out of date.” The state began its inventory in January 2003, the first since 1987, and spent a year completing its review.
Scott stressed that properties are not officially declared excess until a state agency submits a letter to the planning department’s clearinghouse, which then receives input from state and local officials.
A recommendation then goes from the clearinghouse to the Department of General Services to the Board of Public Works, which can declare excess land surplus, which means it can be sold.
“We need to work together to make sure this is clear,” said Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico. “(Land) is probably the most valuable thing we have anywhere.”