In a deal hailed as a model for land preservation in lean budget times, a wealthy businessman has agreed to give up development rights — and grant limited but free public access — to a 950-acre former wildlife sanctuary on the Eastern Shore that he bought 18 months ago.
Robert A. Pascal, a businessman and former Anne Arundel County executive, agreed to donate to the state a permanent conservation easement on the former du Pont family hunting preserve near Bozman in Talbot County. In return for undisclosed but likely sizable tax breaks, Pascal is surrendering the right to build homes on Point Pleasant Farm, a former National Audubon Society sanctuary with eight miles of shoreline.
The deal, approved Wednesday by the state Board of Public Works, means that nearly a thousand acres of wildlife-rich waterfront land will be spared permanently from development. The property won't be a park, but the public will be able to use it by appointment for hunting and fishing, bird-watching, canoeing, kayaking and possibly camping, officials say.
This is the largest preservation deal the state has struck since buying 9,200 acres in two batches in 2009. That cost $71 million and provoked debate about the wisdom of spending so much on land preservation as the state was struggling to balance its budget. The deal approved Wednesday costs taxpayers nothing upfront.
Pascal, 77, told the board the parcel is "too big and too great to have one man hoard."
"It would be a tragedy to develop it," Pascal said. He said he wanted to continue using the Bozman farm, where he occasionally stays in the main house, but also to open it for hunting and fishing parties and school field trips. "I just think it ought to be shared as much as possible with as many people as you can," he said.
The three members of the board — Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp — lauded the deal.
"It's a great Christmas gift for the people of this state," Kopp said.
Pascal said he didn't know yet the size of the federal and state income tax breaks he would get for the easement, in which he is giving up the right to build up to 44 homes on the property. But he said he believes it's a good deal for taxpayers, since the state pays no direct costs to preserve the land or offer it for recreational use. And he will continue to cover upkeep on the property.
"Some people would have asked for cash and the easement," he said. "That's not what I want to do. I can afford it, and I'd like to enjoy it, too, and share it."
John R. Griffin, state secretary of natural resources, called the farm "a great piece of property" and noted that there had been anxiety over its fate since the Audubon Society put it up for sale three years ago.
The society had been given the former hunting preserve in 1997 by Jean Ellen du Pont Shehan and kept it as a wildlife sanctuary open to the public on certain weekends. But funds Shehan had given to maintain the tract ran dry, and the society said it could no longer afford the annual $500,000 upkeep.
Audubon and other preservationists urged the state to buy it, but natural resources officials declined, saying they lacked the money and had other priorities for land preservation. While the farm's meadows, wetlands and woods teem with deer, birds and other wildlife, the tract has no rare plants or animals or other distinctive ecological features.
Pascal, who owns the St. Michaels Harbour Inn, Marina & Spa and is an investor in Baltimore's Harbor East development, bought the farm in July 2010 for an undisclosed sum. With six old houses and outbuildings on it, the property had been assessed at nearly $8.6 million in 2008 but was valued at $7.2 million in a reassessment this year. Some had speculated that it might go for up to $18 million when Audubon had it on the market.
Though Pascal declined to give up the development rights when he bought it, he said then that he had no plans to put houses on it.
Griffin said Pascal contacted him some time ago about making the farm a model of conservation practices. The natural resources secretary said he assigned staff to work with the landowner on various projects, including arranging limited group hunting parties there.
"One thing led to another," Griffin said, and Pascal offered an easement. Though the land is not unique ecologically, he said, preserving such a large tract for wildlife habitat and opening it to even limited public use fits with Chesapeake Bay restoration goals.
Kristin Saunders Evans, assistant natural resources secretary, said Pascal has agreed to permit public access to his land by appointment for hunting, fishing and outdoors education. Officials also are exploring allowing canoe or kayak stopovers and primitive camping on the farm as part of the Captain John Smith national water trail being developed around the bay, she said.
Pascal said that in addition to opening the property for some group hunting and fishing and visits by school groups, he's adapting one of the homes for disabled access, so it could be used by wounded veterans and their families for weekend outings.
"This isn't wide open public access … like a state park," Griffin said. But he said this is the first easement given the state that includes even limited public access. Typically, private landowners give up development rights in return for a tax break, but their property remains private and off limits to the public.
The natural resources secretary said he hopes that eventually, Pascal might give or bequeath the parcel to the state outright. In the meantime, Griffin said, "It's very commendable for him to do this."
Robert J. Etgen, director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, said he was delighted that Pascal had donated the farm's development rights to the state.
Though unwilling to speculate how big a tax break Pascal might receive, Etgen noted that one particularly generous provision is to expire at the end of this year. It grants easement donors a deduction worth as much as 50 percent of their adjusted gross income, he said, which can be spread over a 15-year period.
Etgen said the deal state officials struck allowing limited public access on private land might be a good preservation model for the state, which has seen its funds for buying parkland dwindle in the slumping economy. Program Open Space gets an earmarked portion of real estate transfer taxes, but with property sales down, revenue has declined. The land acquired by the state has fallen from nearly 15,000 acres in fiscal year 2009 to about 5,000 in each of the past two years. So far this fiscal year, the state has bought just 1,900 acres.
"We've been involved with this property for a long time," Etgen said, "so we're just tickled to see it getting preserved now."
Pascal said he's looking forward to having schoolchildren come down and use the property.
"This is my bucket list," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.