ANNAPOLIS – Most lawmakers and witnesses agreed Tuesday: State land deals need much more scrutiny. But the details and form of that oversight are still under debate.
They were testifying on bills formed in response to a controversial proposal uncovered in October to dispose of lands in St. Mary’s County. The disclosure led to subsequent revelations about other state conservation lands that might be up for sale.
Moreover, many speakers said, money diverted in recent years from Program Open Space and similar conservation programs urgently needs to be restored to allow public land purchases to go forward at a time of skyrocketing values.
Delegates from both parties, state administrators and environmental and community representatives testified in favor of some level of increased transparency in the disposal of state lands, and restoration of funding for conservation land purchases.
However the exact mechanism — constitutional amendment, or legislation — and the impact on state finances was left unresolved.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, argued for a constitutional amendment requiring land sales to be scrutinized by the General Assembly.
“We need a constitutional amendment,” he said, because the present process “is not only bringing Program Open Space to a screeching halt, but is running Program Open Space in reverse, selling off ecologically sensitive lands that have been acquired for the public for all time.”
Franchot said an amendment is essential because the present broad public policy is too subject to interpretation by the state.
Earlier, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, testified for a bill detailing stricter public regulation of the disposal of state lands, which now is handled by the Board of Public Works, formed by the governor, comptroller and treasurer.
But even this legislative approach — substituting the General Assembly for the Board of Public Works — struck Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, as “killing a gnat with a sledgehammer.”
James said she was more concerned with restoring land purchase funds through bills requiring the state to repay open space funds used for other purposes.
James testified that even if her repayment plan went through, the open space program would have lost the ability to spend at least $600 million during a period of rapidly increasing land prices.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland testified that polls showed the vast majority of those polled expected their real estate transfer tax to go to conservation land purchases, and the administration should be accountable.
“People think this land is then protected in perpetuity,” Schmidt-Perkins said.
“It’s a brilliant mechanism,” said Michael Sanderson, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties, speaking of the method of funding Program Open Space. “Transfer taxes come in when the price of land rises, money comes in right when the pressures to develop are greatest.”
Maryland’s original program had been considered a model by other states, he said.
“Program Open Space shrinks without intense public interest. If we rely on the real estate faction, we simply won’t have open space,” said Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper.
“It’s an incubator for stewardship,” he said.
The St. Mary’s land deal revelations only scratched the surface of secrecy, said Bonnie Bick, president of the Chapman Forest Foundation. Chapman Forest, she said, was not even on the initial list of state properties listed as considered for disposal. But it turned up on a secret list obtained by The Washington Post in a public records request.
Chapman Forest made it onto the secret list, she said, because the state had debated the potential selling price for the land and decided that allowing the cutting of old-growth forest to build ball fields would reduce its value.
The pending sale of Fort Ritchie to the PenMar Development Company is another process that has been going forward much too secretly, charged Jim Lemon, spokesman for a homeowners’ group near the fort. He decried the lack of media attention to the issue.
-30- CNS 3-8-2005