ANNAPOLIS – Legislative partisans faced off Thursday on whether the General Assembly should have more control over the disposal of public land in the wake of a dubious real estate deal in St. Mary’s County.
Republicans argued that while the deal that would have transferred more than 836 acres in St. Mary’s to developer Willard Hackerman was unfortunate, sufficient safeguards are in place to protect public properties from improper disposal.
Democrats, however, called the Hackerman deal — which would have allowed him to purchase the conservation land at cost to partially develop housing — outrageous and argued the system needs additional restraint.
The debate came in a joint hearing of the Senate Education, Heath and Environmental Affairs, and Budget and Taxation committees hearing on four bills, one of them a constitutional amendment, introduced by Senate Democrats to assure that no state lands are disposed of without the express approval of the General Assembly.
“This ain’t rocket science. We’ve got plenty of lawyers in this state,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, defending his cosponsorship of the constitutional amendment.
While the bills, especially the constitutional amendment, have nuanced differences, in general they require than the General Assembly must specifically approve any “sale, lease, transfer, exchange, grant or other disposition of State-designated outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest or park land.” At present the three-member Board of Public Works can authorize disposition.
“We (St. Mary’s) have been paying dearly since the 1930’s. It’s high time our government did the right thing by protecting (us). So I’m here to give us a say,” said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, cosponsor of the constitutional amendment and another bill.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, defended Hackerman’s intentions (Hackerman was to donate much of the land back to the state and county, including a school site) while deploring the resulting mess.
On the Republican side, however, Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, expressed deep unhappiness with the whole affair, while questioning the need for “cumbersome” new safeguards to protect environmentally sensitive areas.
Other Republicans, including Sens. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick, and Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, sharply questioned the need for new procedures.
Munson cited the transfer of a run-down armory — it took five years, allowing increasing decay, before it was given to a school to rehabilitate — as — proof, he said, that the state did not show undo haste in disposing of its property.
Members of state agencies involved in land transfers testified about the already-complex procedures they use to assure due diligence, and the additional complexity and delays that the proposed legislative changes would bring about.
Dyson said that he first learned about the proposed St. Mary’s land deal in the newspapers, because certified letters informing him of it had been sent to his Annapolis office, closed while the Legislature was not in session and while the part-time secretary there was out sick.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan also expressed outrage that he had learned that a park within the county, Matthew Henson, was on the list of land considered for transfer. He spoke of the importance of preserving all open space “because of what it means to the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” and of the importance of making sure that the public had time to become involved in such decisions.
“Some of us feel chagrined that while trying to help Montgomery County get the (Inter-county Connector) we learned that part of the property for the ICC had been disposed of” without notice, said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick.
Representatives of half-a-dozen environmental groups, many of whom had been recently protesting the ICC, came to support additional protection for open lands including restoration of the real estate tax that had initially been set aside to purchase such lands.
“People are very, very concerned. They felt violated that land that they thought would belong to the public forever” could be at risk,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland.
“We need more sunshine on land transfers — at the moment things are cloudy.”
-30 – CNS-2-17-05