State vows to cast wider net when buying land

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin is pledging to cast a wider net when looking for land to preserve as open space, a move that some public officials and environmental advocates say is badly needed in light of two recent purchases that drew criticism.

Under the revised policy, natural resources officials will use "green infrastructure" criteria such as habitat, wildlife corridors and water-quality benefits to look across the state for properties to buy. Previously, the agency used those criteria only to screen land it had decided it wanted to buy.

Griffin will present the changes to the state Board of Public Works today.

"Our baseline is ecological protection, and we're trying to develop a hierarchy of values," Griffin said. "It's been there, but it's been sort of ad hoc."

Griffin said Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who, along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, are members of the Board of Public Works, have told him that they thought his agency needed an overall strategy for how to buy land instead of waiting for willing sellers to approach.

Franchot and Kopp raised that issue again twice last month. The first time was after the board unanimously approved the $5 million purchase of a Queen Anne's County farm that cost nearly $1 million more than the average of two appraisals. The second was after the board approved a deal to pay $7.2 million for a 74-acre industrial site on Kent Island. In both cases, the sellers approached the state.

Griffin said he had been working on a new plan for Program Open Space since February as part of O'Malley's BayStat initiative, a quantitative approach to evaluating Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. O'Malley promised during his campaign to not only fully fund Open Space, but also to be more strategic about what the state bought.

Franchot's spokesman, Joseph H. Shapiro, said yesterday that the comptroller is pleased that Griffin is taking a more active approach. Franchot raised questions about both land deals and voted against the Kent Island one.

"He's still very committed to examining each item and each purchase on a case-by-case basis," Shapiro said. "However, it's nice to have a framework for evaluating them."

Kopp spokesman Howard S. Freedlander said the treasurer has seen background materials on Griffin's plan but would wait for today's briefing before commenting.

Dru-Schmidt Perkins, executive director of the preservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said she hopes that the expansion of habitat and water-quality criteria would show that properties throughout the state - not just those next to the bay - are worth preserving. She also said the new plan should bring more transparency to the department.

"The whole process will be clearer for everyone, which sounds pretty needed, given the last few rounds on the board where there's been a lot of confusion," Perkins said.

Alan Girard, senior land-use policy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agreed that the proposal is an improvement.

"It adds more scientific basis to land acquisitions," he said. "It helps Maryland residents better understand what their tax dollars are being used for."

The department's blueprint for green infrastructure dates to Griffin's first term as secretary in the late 1990s, when he served in the Glendening administration. The program, then called GreenPrint, developed a scoring system for lands based on their ecological benefits.

In the first year of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term, the department halted land purchases so that the administration could develop its own guidelines. Prompted by questions from Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a perennial critic of state land-preservation programs, Ehrlich changed the state's criteria to emphasize purchases on or near the bay and its tributaries. That effort was limited because Ehrlich diverted open-space funds to help balance the budget.

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