Real estate hubbub

The Baltimore Sun

The decision to purchase a 270-acre property in Queen Anne's County that local officials plan to set aside as open space has drawn attention far beyond its significance. The property was most recently appraised at $4.6 million, and that's how much the state is paying for it - with an additional $400,000 coming from the county.

That doesn't sound particularly nefarious, but enough odd details about the deal have slowly come out to raise eyebrows. The questions generated by the purchase have, one by one, been reasonably answered by the O'Malley administration. This isn't scandal. At worst, it appears the Board of Public Works wasn't fully informed before the June 20 vote.

The blame for that rests with Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, who should have disclosed before the vote that his previous employer, Buchart-Horn Inc., had done work for U.S. Land Alliance, the company that is selling the Grasonville property. Since Mr. Griffin went to the trouble of getting an attorney's opinion on whether there was a conflict of interest, he could have mentioned the issue earlier publicly.

It is certainly reasonable to ask whether the state has paid too much for land that was initially valued at $3.6 million. U.S. Land Alliance is making a handsome profit. But state officials can point to at least a dozen land deals brought to the board over the past 18 months where the purchase price was well above the initial appraisal. Sometimes, that's what it takes. Last May, for instance, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his fellow board members approved $1.75 million for a 9-acre North Point parcel that was most recently appraised at $1.4 million.

The state could have walked away from the Grasonville deal, of course, but that's not what officials in Queen Anne's County wanted. And they were the lead negotiators with the landowner. Grasonville is a fast-developing area on the Eastern Shore, and the county badly wanted the former Kudner Farm left undeveloped.

Whether the state is getting a good deal may depend on one's viewpoint. This much is clear: It's not much out of line with appraisals, and there's no smoking gun of political favoritism. As Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp has noted, the important measure is whether the deal is good for the state's land conservation efforts - and by that standard, it passes muster.

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