- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

ANNAPOLIS (AP)| Despite troubling financial times, the state Board of Public Works approved buying about 4,400 acres of land for $57 million on Wednesday, a purchase state officials consider too ecologically and culturally valuable to pass up.

The board, which includes Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, all Democrats, voted unanimously to buy the land on four parcels in Cecil, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. The land includes about 20 miles of Potomac River waterfront, wildlife habitat and historic ties to Maryland’s first Colonial settlement.

“This is a once-in-forever - not once-in-a-lifetime - but once-in-forever opportunity to protect these lands, not for us, but more importantly for the future generations of Maryland,” said William Crouch, a Maryland representative for the Conservation Fund, a national organization that helps government agencies acquire land.

The group is being reimbursed about $600,000 from the state for helping to secure the deal, including money for appraisals and administrative fees.

Mr. Franchot, who has been a regular critic of Maryland’s process for buying land, questioned why the group should handle so much of the process, when they have no fiduciary responsibility to Maryland taxpayers. He said he was concerned that the state is reimbursing groups based on a percentage of the cost of the purchase.

Mr. Franchot said he would prefer having state agencies “do the actual legwork here, because I don’t feel comfortable - when we get, particularly when we get these big-ticket items - in having a policy where we’re reimbursing percentages.”

Michael Gaines, assistant secretary for real estate for the Maryland Department of General Services, said it was a “valid fee” for the work the group does. He said fewer land deals would get done without the help of an organization like the Conservation Fund.

“The value of having them is extra feet, hands, eyes and bodies on the ground to get all of this work done,” he said.

The land will be purchased from the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, which has owned the land since the 17th century. The money will come from the state’s Program Open Space, which is funded through transfer-tax collections on real estate deals.

One parcel includes a 776-acre peninsula known as the New Towne Neck. It includes 7 miles of shoreline along Breton Bay, the Potomac River and St. Clements Bay in St. Mary’s County. Plans call for making it a future state park. The property was last purchased by the Jesuits in 1668, for 40,000 pounds of tobacco.

The average cost per acre for the land deal approved Wednesday is $12,718.

The purchase is part of a larger overall deal announced by Mr. O’Malley in December, costing $71 million and totaling about 9,242 acres.

Republicans have been critical of buying the land at a time when Mr. O’Malley has been forced to make budget cuts, including 700 layoffs of state employees that have been included in the budget the governor made public last week. Mr. O’Malley counters that the transfer and real estate tax receipts are set aside for land conservation.

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