ANNAPOLIS – In 2006, voters will consider a constitutional amendment granting oversight on disposition of state land to the Maryland General Assembly — a bill that passed in the final hours of this year’s session last week.
“The main goal was to make it clear that the governor should not be willy-nilly selling off land, reducing the amount of open space in Maryland,” said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration is “running Program Open Space in reverse,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. “Now they’re trying to sell off ecologically sensitive lands,” instead of purchasing them.
Outrage over last October’s discovery that the administration had been planning to sell state conservation lands in St. Mary’s County to a private developer prompted a series of bills to give the Legislature more control over the future of state lands.
“People are tired of seeing farmland converted to development,” said Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles.
“The $180 million in real estate transfer tax supposed to go for open-space purchases is being used to cover other deficiencies,” he said, urging that legislation be put together to stop the diversion into general revenue of what were supposed to be dedicated funds.
When open land is developed, the increase in paved surfaces sends water full of garden, automotive, ice-melting and other toxic chemicals racing into streams after each rain. With less forested and plant-covered soil to absorb rain slowly, the soil itself washes away, turning clear streams into muddy floods, said Margaret Palmer, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Another problem, said Marcia Verploegen of Partners for Open Space, is retaining funds to purchase land or conservation easements. Real estate transfer tax funds that are supposed to be dedicated to the purchase of more open land, she said, have been used instead to prop up the state treasury for several years while land prices all over Maryland have risen steeply, complicating purchases.
Attempts to close a loophole allowing corporations to avoid paying real estate transfer taxes died in Senate committee, as they have in previous years.
Franchot said the Legislature did add $73 million to the $23 million the administration had budgeted for open space purchases.
Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, had said during hearings on the bills that the real issue was forcing the state to repay open space funds it had been using in previous years for other purposes. Bills to force repayment failed.
Ehrlich announced $7.5 million in Rural Legacy grant agreements, early in the session, part of the $15 million total budgeted for the purchase of land and conservation easements in designated protection areas.