ANNAPOLIS – Efforts to sell state forest land to developer Willard Hackerman went forward without secrecy and with preservation a priority, Hackerman said in his first public statement since the land deal sparked controversy two months ago.
Hackerman, owner of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., called “erroneous accounts” of the proposed transaction “unfair to me in the extreme,” in a written statement provided Tuesday at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee meeting. Hackerman withdrew from negotiations for the land a month ago amid a barrage of criticism.
Though critics have condemned the secrecy surrounding the deal to sell 836 acres of environmentally-sensitive St. Mary’s County land to Hackerman at cost, the transaction was “no secret at all,” Hackerman said in the statement.
And though critics argued there was no guarantee the land would stay preserved, Hackerman said he “never would have ‘developed’ any of the Salem Tract, except for the ‘relatively few farms’ and the donation of a public school site.”
The construction magnate had previously pledged to donate some land for county schools. But mention of using up to 50 acres to build “relatively few farms” triggered alarm at Tuesday’s hearing.
“He could get tens of millions for just one of those farms,” said Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s. “It’s that valuable,” he said, adding that any development could harm the surrounding area.
“The process stinks, in my opinion,” said Dyson, as he asked Secretary of General Services Boyd Rutherford for help in reforming the procedure for notifying legislators of such transactions. The Salem deal, he said, “did not work to the benefit of Marylanders.”
Fifty acres, added Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, is still 50 acres.
“If I was to qualify for tax deductions, I obviously could not also develop the property,” wrote Hackerman. The transaction was designed to yield tax benefits to the construction magnate, the scale of which he disputes in his letter.
Hackerman also emphasized that he never asked to be called the “benefactor” or for anybody to withhold his name.
Rutherford said referring to Hackerman as the “benefactor,” as he had in past meetings, was his decision and could have been a mistake.
At the hearing, Rutherford also reviewed a detailed timeline of the two-year process that has culminated in repeated hearings and scores of newspaper articles on the subject.
“This is very informative,” said Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, “because it’s very different from what the newspapers wrote.”
The timeline detailed how Hackerman initially requested to meet with Rutherford in mid-2003 regarding the Salem Tract, after which Rutherford attended multiple private meetings on the subject.
Steve Kreseski, Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s chief of staff, assured lawmakers that any other land sales would “always follow the rigorous public process already in place . . . in our experience, this process works.”
In his letter, Hackerman concluded, “I have been unfairly punished by the onslaught of negative publicity fueled by those who callously try to harm my reputation for their own political and other purposes.”