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Land purchase OK'd

The Baltimore Sun

By a 2-1 vote, the state Board of Public Works approved a plan yesterday to buy a 74-acre piece of land at the northern tip of Kent Island that Natural Resources officials say offers unique deep-water access for Maryland boaters and has historical significance.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp voted for the purchase under Maryland's Program Open Space. Comptroller Peter Fanchot cast the dissenting vote, saying he believed the price was too steep.

"Is this project the best possible expenditure, and are taxpayers getting the best bang for their buck?" Franchot asked. "I think $97,000 an acre is way too much."

But O'Malley and Kopp said they were satisfied that the price was fair and said the parcel, known as Love Point, is well worth acquiring for public use. They said they like the Natural Resources Department's plans for land and water trails and other recreational programs at the site.

"I'm excited with what the project holds," O'Malley said. "I believe it is in the spirit of Open Space."

Added Kopp, "From everything that I've seen, $7 million is a good price for these ... acres."

The property is being sold by Atchafalaya Holdings, which owns and operates Langenfelder Marine, a dredging and marine transportation company.

The owners would lease and continue to operate on about 12 acres, at a cost of $215,000 a year, until it can relocate. The lease is for five years with an option to renew for five more years, subject to state approval.

Jim Matters, principal owner of Atchafalya Holdings, said he wants to sell for business reasons. He said he was pleased with the board's vote yesterday.

The debate on buying the property lasted for more than an hour, as Franchot grilled state administrators on all aspects of the proposed transaction.

Franchot said he did not understand why it was urgent for the state to buy the land and questioned whether the property had significant potential to be developed privately if the state decided against buying it.

Most of the tract is zoned for industrial use and would have to be rezoned to allow for residential development, Franchot noted.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin said individuals approached Matters about selling the land privately before he came to the state with an offer to sell.

"Either this is going to go through now or he's going to pursue the other options he had," Griffin warned.

But Franchot said, "We don't have a bottomless pit of money. We can't buy from everybody that knocks on the door."

Program Open Space gets a dedicated share of state transfer taxes on real estate purchases. From 2003 through 2007, about $400 million was allocated for land purchases. State and local governments spent about $245 million of those funds during the same period.

Franchot and Kopp also closely questioned state officials on who would be responsible for cleaning up the industrial marine site and any environmental problems.

Griffin said the seller is obligated to address any environmental issues that arise and that environmental reviews so far have found "low to moderate risks."

The seller also will be responsible for clearing the property of stone, shell and equipment before vacating it, Griffin said.

He said the state can start developing recreational trails on the land even as Langenfelder Marine continues to operate under its lease.

The money from the lease will be escrowed and used for recreational projects, according to Natural Resources officials.

"This is a fantastic piece of property with all kinds of opportunities," Griffin said.

The site has a rich history. During the first half of the 20th century, people from Baltimore would travel by ferry to Love Point and then take trains to the Atlantic beaches.

Several people representing environmental and historical groups attended yesterday's meeting and urged the board to approve the land deal. No one from the audience spoke in opposition to the transaction.

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