- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | The state’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved spending $14.4 million to buy more than 4,700 acres of privately owned forestland in Worcester County - a deal questioned because of its cost when the state is facing a budget crisis.

The three-member board voted unanimously to approve the land deal, which will be financed with about $9.3 million from Maryland’s Program Open Space, a conservation program funded by the state’s real estate transfer tax. About $5.1 million comes from federal money.

The land on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is considered to be of high ecological importance, containing rare habitat for forest interior dwelling and neotropical migrant birds. It’s in the Nassawango Creek and Pocomoke River watersheds.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a board member, approved the plan but said the state needs a better bargaining system because it is paying the higher of two appraisals during rocky times in real estate.

“We cannot, with a straight face, go to the public and say we’re paying relatively top dollar,” he said.

Supporters of the deal said it was too good to pass up, largely because the land is a contiguous parcel and rarely available.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who sits on the board with Mr. Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, said the deal is consistent with good policies developed by past state leaders to set aside some of the transfer tax to protect land in a state where the population continues to grow and development encroaches on environmentally sensitive land.

However, he criticized the administration of his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, for failing to use Program Open Space money as intended. Mr. O’Malley said the program was “hit and robbed and used to serve the needs of the minority of the present.”

Republican lawmakers criticized the deal, saying Mr. O’Malley was willing to put state workers on furlough to address the state’s budget shortfall instead of using money spent on the land deal to avoid that.

“The governor has decided that his policy of buying land that’s not developed now nor planned to be developed comes before state employees,” said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican, the Senate’s minority leader.

The Foster property in Worcester County is part of a total of 9,242 acres of land Mr. O’Malley announced plans to buy last month for a total of $71 million.

Purchase plans include land in St. Mary’s, Charles and Cecil counties, including more than 19 miles of Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay shoreline.

More than 80 percent of the land falls within a high priority conservation or targeted ecological focus area.

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