Open Space purchase debated

The Baltimore Sun

Department of Natural Resources officials say the state ought to buy a 74-acre parcel at the northern tip of Kent Island - known as Love Point - because it is unique, offers deep-water access for boaters and has historical significance as the main docking point for a ferry that shuttled passengers between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore in the decades before the Bay Bridge opened.

But others say the proposed $7.2 million deal for the Langenfelder Marine property - a dusty, industrial waterfront site - raises broader concerns about how the state handles land purchases under Program Open Space.

The program gets tens of millions of dollars annually for land preservation through a dedicated portion of state transfer taxes on real estate transactions. Though the agency says it has a process to identify and evaluate sites it wants to buy, some question whether the agency responds too much to what sellers bring forward instead of targeting acquisitions that the state identifies as best serving the public interest.

"I just wish I could be convinced we're not reacting too much to what happens to be on the market and that we're doing enough proactively to go after the properties we need," said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, whose opinion carries considerable weight.

As a member of the Board of Public Works, she casts one of three votes that will decide whether the sale goes through - an issue on the agenda for today's meeting.

The proposal to buy the Langenfelder property was put on hold at the board's July 22 meeting after Comptroller Peter Franchot noted the price and other concerns and balked at voting to approve the deal.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose administration is proposing to buy the site, is the board's third member.

Company proposal

Kopp noted that the deal was proposed by the property's owners, Atchafalaya Holdings LLC, and did not originate with the state. Records show that company representatives approached Natural Resources officials in the waning days of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration and that the proposal moved forward under O'Malley.

Kopp said in an interview that she is reviewing the deal and that it appears to be a reasonable proposal to buy and preserve a unique piece of waterfront property for public use. But she said the state should do more to coordinate and set priorities for land purchases under Open Space and other programs, such as Rural Legacy and Agricultural Land Preservation.

Franchot declined a request for an interview, but a spokesman, Joseph Shapiro, said the comptroller has problems with the proposal.

"His concerns are the high cost of the land, especially now during a deficit debate; the use of Open Space money on a marine industrial site that will remain active for at least five years; and the apparent lack of a comprehensive, statewide strategy for the [Open Space] program right now," Shapiro said.

Model program

Richard J. Dolesh, public policy director for the Ashburn, Va.-based National Recreation and Park Association, said Maryland is one of just eight states that have a dedicated source of funding to acquire land for preservation, and he spoke admiringly of its program.

"We hold Maryland up as a model for the nation. They have a terrific program," said Dolesh, whose nonprofit group advocates for parks, recreation and environmental conservation. From 1999 to 2001, he worked for a unit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that dealt with wildlife preservation.

Dolesh said it is important for states to be "flexible and nimble" in purchasing desirable property as it becomes available and Maryland has a record of doing that.

"One reason [the program] works so well is that it is a pay-go program and tied to the rate of real estate development," Dolesh said. "As land is bought and sold and subdivided, the tax generates more money to buy more land for conservation."

Maryland has spent $97.4 million acquiring land under Program Open Space over the past five years, records show. Local governments get tens of millions of dollars more that they can use to buy land for tennis courts, baseball fields or similar recreational purposes.

James W. "Chip" Price, who manages Program Open Space, said the Langenfelder site fits some of the program's key objectives - restoring the bay and protecting the environment - and would be a worthwhile purchase.

Although the owners would lease and continue to operate their dredging and marine transport business on about 12 acres - including docking facilities and sections where shell, stone and equipment are stored - other parts could be used for water trails and recreational purposes, he said.

After the lease expires, the state would have deep-water access to the bay for public use, he said.

"Just because it doesn't look perfect and pristine right now doesn't mean it isn't a valuable piece of land that can be restored," Price said.

He said the state does have an evaluation process for Open Space acquisitions and that $198 million in projects are "in the pipeline" and under review. But not all property the state has an interest in buying is on the market or available for sale, he said.

"We don't pass up opportunity purchases, because we only buy from willing sellers," Price said. "If it's important, we're not going to go, 'Oh, well, that's not on our list.' This met the needs of what our program is about and it's for sale."

Voices of approval

Representatives of key environmental groups, county officials and others interested in land preservation said they share the view of state officials that the site is worth preserving.

"That property is a great piece of Maryland's history and it offers incredible public access to the bay, which is hard to find," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental group.

She said she hasn't seen anything to suggest that the $7.2 million price tag isn't reasonable and noted that it is in line with the value set by two appraisers hired by the state. She said she is disappointed that the purchase has been stalled and could be in jeopardy.

Atchafalaya LLC, a company owned by Jim Matters and a partner, David Howson, bought the land from C.J. Langenfelder & Sons Inc. for its assessed value, $1.75 million, in 2002, according to Queen Anne's County land records.

Matters said the land purchase was part of a larger, multimillion-dollar deal that included buying Langenfelder Marine's assets - equipment, contracts and materials. Until this year, the company had a continuing, annual contract with the state to dredge for oyster shells at a cost of about $2 million a year. The shells are moved from one part of the bay to another and used to build reefs for oyster restoration.

Rising values

In discussing the value of the property, Matters noted that land in Queen Anne's County has exploded in value in the past few years. He also said he had a two-story office building built on the site after acquiring it, installed stone breakers to prevent shoreline erosion and has made other improvements.

Matters said the sale is driven by business considerations. He said he sought a lease from the state as part of the deal because he wants to continue operating the business, which employs more than 60 people, until he can complete arrangements to move to a new site.

The Langenfelder land purchase has raised eyebrows in part because it came right after another Queen Anne's County land purchase that involved property owned by a member of O'Malley's transition team.

David Sutherland, who served on the team's environmental working group at the request of DNR Secretary John R. Griffin, sold 271 acres of Grasonville land known as the Kudner farm to Queen Anne's County for $5 million - more than the highest state appraisal.

The $18,000 an acre for the Kudner farm property is far less than the roughly $97,000 an acre the state is proposing to pay for the Langenfelder site, but the Kudner land is inland and not well suited for development - in part because septic systems can't be installed on much of the property.

At the Langenfelder site, individual lots vary widely in value, with those along the water the most valuable. Based on sales of similar properties, appraisers valued some waterfront lots within the tract at $1 million and other parts at $25,000 an acre. A 12.5-acre lake there was valued at $1.

There is housing on property that borders Langenfelder Marine. Like that property, the Langenfelder site could be developed using wells and septic systems if the owners decided to sell to private developers.

O'Malley foes have tried to link the proposed Langenfelder purchase to the Kudner transaction, describing it as yet another questionable land deal, but local observers say they don't see it that way.

Del. Richard A. Sossi, a Queen Anne's County Republican, said the Kudner farm purchase appeared "odorous" but that he doesn't object to the deal for the Langenfelder site.

"To me, it looks fine and legitimate," said Sossi, who serves on the House of Delegates Environmental Matters Committee. "I think it's a fair price. ... I have not seen or heard anything to cause me concern."

Eric Wargotz, president of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissioners, said that while the county commission has not been involved in or taken a position on the proposed acquisition, he favors the state buying the Langenfelder Marine site.

"I think it would be a great purchase for the state of Maryland," Wargotz said. "It's a great, deep-water site that could be used for all different types of water sports activities."

Another commissioner, Paul M. Gunther, expressed similar views. "If it goes to private hands, it would be kind of a shame," he said. "I'd much rather see it as open space for everybody to enjoy. I'd love to see it preserved."

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