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Hackerman says secrecy about deal wasn't his idea

Sun Staff

Construction magnate Willard J. Hackerman said yesterday that it was nothis idea to keep his identity secret in discussing his plan to buy St. Mary'sCounty preservation land from the state.

In his most detailed explanation yet about the aborted land deal,Hackerman, the chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., alsoconfirmed in a written statement that he planned to partially develop theparcel.

Hackerman said he wanted to "set the record straight" on the plan. It hasbeen criticized by lawmakers and environmentalists and has been scrutinizedduring four legislative hearings, including one yesterday by the SenateEducation, Health and Environmental Matters Committee.

The developer, whose company built such Baltimore landmarks as the National Aquarium and Convention Center, was identified in state documents and inpublic testimony as an anonymous "benefactor," a term General ServicesSecretary Boyd K. Rutherford said he coined.

"I never at any time asked to be referred to as a `benefactor' or to havemy name kept secret," Hackerman wrote.

Rutherford apologized yesterday for his decision to hide the name for muchof the past year.

"If the use of the term `benefactor' is a mistake, then I accept it as amistake," he said.

Rutherford said he felt the need to conceal the purchaser's identitybecause if the deal fell apart, no one would have needed to know Hackerman'sidentity.

"I have been unfairly punished by the onslaught of negative publicityfueled by those who callously try to harm my reputation for their ownpolitical and other purposes," Hackerman said in his statement, which wasaccompanied by letters of reference from local luminaries such as Cardinal William H. Keeler and the Abell Foundation head, Robert C. Embry Jr.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, committee chairman, said Rutherford's lack ofdisclosure greatly fueled lawmakers' concerns.

"When there is sunshine, there are less questions," she said.

Hackerman planned to buy 836 acres of forest near the St. Mary's RiverState Park, known as the Salem Tract, for the same price the state paid,promising he would donate the development rights to the Maryland EnvironmentalTrust and saying he planned to give some of the land to the county for aschool.

In his statement yesterday, delivered by his attorney George A. Nilson,Hackerman said he intended to develop "a relatively few farms" on about 50acres.

"I never would have `developed' any of the Salem Tract except for the`relatively few farms' and the donation of a public school site," he wrote. "Irepeatedly so advised state officials."

Hackerman did not attend the meeting.

Rutherford said he was unaware when the state purchased the land inNovember 2003 of Hackerman's plan to develop farms on the property.

Nilson said his client planned to build about five "small and tastefulbuildings" for family members on the site.

The original plan was for the state to transfer the property to himimmediately after it bought the land, eliminating the need for newassessments, Hackerman wrote. He said he expected to pay somewhat more thanthe state's $2.5 million purchase price to account for rising property values.

Hackerman also disputed the upper end of the Department of LegislativeServices' estimate for the tax break he could have received by donating thedevelopment rights on the property.

He wrote that it would more likely be about $2.9 million, not $7 million,meaning he would have gotten slightly more back in tax credits than he paidfor the land.

Hollinger distributed draft legislation intended to give the GeneralAssembly more control over state land sales. This deal makes the need forlegislation evident, some lawmakers said.

"The process stinks, in my opinion," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democratfrom St. Mary's County. "I think something went radically wrong here."

The genesis of the deal was Hackerman's experience in buying land from theUniversity of Maryland System around its chancellor's house and donating itsdevelopment rights piece-by-piece to the Maryland Environmental Trust, hewrote.

Boni Friedman, president of a homeowners association adjacent to the house,said Hackerman helped neighbors by clearing land, conducting surveys andfulfilling commitments that he didn't have to make.

"Senator Dyson, if I were you, I would have been thankful that WillardHackerman owned property near me," she said.

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