The Ehrlich administration is proposing to transfer state parkland to St. Mary's County for school construction, an unusual transaction that some critics say is an inappropriate use of the property.
The Maryland Department of Planning has begun the process of declaring 24 acres of St. Mary's River State Park as "surplus" so it can be turned over to the county for an elementary school. The county would not pay for the parcel but in exchange would give the state nearly 40 acres elsewhere.
The proposal, which is subject to approval by the state Board of Public Works, comes after a failed effort that would have given the county even more land for schools. Baltimore contractor Willard Hackerman wanted to purchase a protected forest from the state and had proposed giving up to 200 acres of that to St. Mary's.
St. Mary's County Commission President Thomas F. McKay, a Republican who helped broker the proposal being pursued, said the arrangement would help fulfill a crucial need in a county desperate for schools. He said officials could find no property that they believe is appropriate and so turned to the state for help.
"We looked at 60 sites," McKay said. "It has been very, very difficult to find something that is suitable."
Other elected officials in Southern Maryland say the state park site should remain undeveloped. The land was bought 30 years ago as a buffer against flooding in the river's watershed, they said, and is a habitat of the Eastern narrow-mouthed toad, a species endangered in Maryland. The land is leased to farmers.
"It's not at all a viable project," Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat, said of the proposal to put a school on the tract. "It should have been abandoned long ago."
A spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., when asked to comment, said the idea originated with the county.
"The proposal was brought to us by the county, and it was determined that it was appropriate to explore the proposal at the departmental level," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich press secretary.
But a state planning department official said it is unusual for state agencies to get involved in helping local jurisdictions obtain land for schools. Chuck Gates, a department spokesman, said the last time the state provided such land was in 1993. In that case, it was a hospital property in Dorchester County.
"I don't know why St. Mary's County can't buy land on their own, but in this case they are not," Gates said.
The land swap was first announced in June but has not progressed since then. In the intervening months, state and county officials were exploring the Hackerman land deal. The administration was planning to sell 836 acres of forest to Hackerman, the chief executive officer of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. The property, known locally as the Salem Tract, is a few hundred yards from the 24-acre park site.
Hackerman promised to give up to 200 acres of the Salem Tract to the county for three schools and several other buildings, and pledged to preserve the remainder - while creating a tax break that could have been worth several million dollars. The deal died after legislative analysts and lawmakers questioned why the state was selling the contractor the land at the same price the state paid for it.
Records later released under state freedom of information laws showed that the natural resources department compiled a list of 3,000 acres in and around state parks that could be sold to developers or local governments.
In the aftermath of the Hackerman deal, leading lawmakers have called for legislation requiring General Assembly approval before parkland could be sold.
Some Democratic critics contend that the Ehrlich administration is trying to help St. Mary's as a boost to a fast-growing area with burgeoning numbers of Republican voters. McKay is close to the administration, and some speculate he is being groomed to run against state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat, in 2006.
Dyson has been critical of using the parkland along Indian Bridge Road for schools, saying the construction costs and environmental risks are too great.
Bohanan said McKay seems to be involved in independent negotiations to find land for schools, rather than reaching out to business leaders and others. But McKay denied that he stood to gain politically from the parkland swap.
"If people would take their political hats off and look at what is best for the citizens of St. Mary's County, they would see a lot of merit to what is being proposed here," McKay said. "I appreciate the governor's staff work, but I think he would do the same for any county in the state."
County officials first approached the Department of Natural Resources about 14 months ago to express interest in the land, said Gene Piotrowski, DNR's director for resource planning.
The county's original application was rejected, Piotrowski said, because St. Mary's wanted all 60 acres of the site and wasn't offering anything in return. The agency then worked with the county on refining its application. In the end, the county asked for 24 acres on which to build its elementary school, with the promise it would reforest the rest.
In exchange, the county would give the state 21 acres adjacent to the St. Mary's River Fish Management Area and an additional 18 acres within the St. Mary's watershed that the county is seeking to buy. Piotrowski considers the deal a net gain of open space because the state can protect environmentally sensitive property in perpetuity.
"I can't tell you that we are open for any other jurisdiction to come to us without a lot of good reasons why they want our land and without a net gain in environmental protection," Piotrowski said.
The deal is not on the agenda of the Board of Public Works.
Gates, the planning spokesman, said his department sent letters last month to state senators, delegates and county officials indicating the land was going through a process that would result in its being declared surplus. Responses are due by Jan. 16.
St. Mary's officials have said they badly need school sites. The fast-growing county, which has about 90,000 residents, hasn't built a new high school in 25 years or a new elementary or middle school in 12 years.
Sue Veith, an environmental planner for the county, said the school swap would have much less of a wildlife impact than the previous plan to build on the Hackerman parcel. The site is smaller, she said, and the land is not environmentally sensitive. "I'm not in favor of giving up any public land," Veith said. "But I understand we have needs that have to be met, so I could live with it."
McKay said the county's needs over the next few years are so pressing - four elementary schools, one high school and one middle school - that it can use all the help it can muster. But local critics say using the St. Mary's River Park site would encourage sprawl.
"There's no infrastructure there to support it, and I'm sure development would follow," said Linda Vallandingham, a lifelong county resident. She said she is also fearful of the precedent.
"What would stop any other jurisdiction from saying, 'Hey, you gave land to St. Mary's County for schools. How about us?'" she said.
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.