Thursday, August 2, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland officials yesterday postponed closing a $7.2 million land deal in the face of several unanswered questions — including whether the state already owns at least some of the property.

“What assurances have you given us that your client has in fact clear title to the property?” asked Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, one of three members on the Board of Public Works, which voted 2-1 to support the deal pending an opinion from the state’s attorney general.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, on the board with Mrs. Kopp and Gov. Martin O’Malley, voted against the land-conservation deal, saying that it was not a good use of tax dollars.

“Is this project best possible expenditure of Program Open Space dollars?” Mr. Franchot asked. “Are taxpayers getting the best bang for their buck?”

Mr. Franchot, a Democrat, also asked for the legal opinion, following Mrs. Kopp’s questions about the landownership, effectively delaying the deal.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, supported the deal, which would provide public access to a deep-water port on the Chesapeake Bay and to waterfront property on the Eastern Shore.

The 74-acre property includes an industrial oyster-dredging site. As a result, board members deferred a vote last month over questions about the environmental quality of part of the land.

“I am excited with what the project holds,” Mr O’Malley said. “Albeit, this is not the preservation of the pristine, but the remediation of the industrial.”

Under the pending deal, the parcel would be leased back to the landowner for $215,000 a year for up to 10 years, to continue dredging and also to clean the site.

“The board spent a lot of time and effort, and I’m thankful that they did,” landowner Jim Matters said. “I hope and believe at the end of the day it would be a very good decision for the state.”

Mr. Matters was approached by a private buyer before coming to the state with the deal, but walked away and paid a $100,000 fee, said a source close to the land purchase.

Mr. Matters and his attorney, Robert Douglas, declined to discuss the details of the proposed deal.

“The terms of that are much more than just a land deal, and I can’t say any more about it,” Mr. Douglas told members of the board. “I can’t discuss it; it’s confidential. I’ve said that 50 times.”

This is not the first such deal under the O’Malley administration that has raised questions.

Program Open Space spending was questioned after the state approved the purchase of 271 acres of Queen Anne’s County property for $1 million more than would have normally been paid. Questions about the landowner’s connections to Mr. O’Malley’s administration also were raised.

Mr. O’Malley said the board will review changes to the program and how it evaluates land purchases at its next meeting, in three weeks.

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