Program Open Space, Maryland's nationally recognized effort to create outdoor recreational opportunities and preserve untouched lands, has been spending money on the indoors - including golf-course building renovations, community centers and an indoor aquatic center.
Call it Program Enclosed Space.
State auditors criticized the longstanding practice in a report yesterday on the Department of Natural Resources and said that the General Assembly's counsel advised them that the use of open-space funding for indoor recreational facilities doesn't appear to be within the law.
Agency officials told auditors that they believed the indoor projects qualified for funding because the facilities accommodate recreational activities, such as swimming, that are typically done outdoors. And, agency officials noted, the public would be able to enjoy year-round use of the indoor facilities, making them a better investment.
John R. Griffin, natural resources secretary, promised to seek clarifying legislative language in the next General Assembly session to ensure that such expenditures follow the letter of the law. Nonetheless, agency officials said they were surprised by the dispute.
The open-space program has been used to build or acquire indoor facilities since the 1970s, they said, and state lawmakers are typically enthusiastically supportive, attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the projects throughout the summer. They said the indoor facilities must be related to the mission of the program and are often nature centers or recreational facilities.
"Bottom line is, this has been going on for a long time, and this is the first time we've seen it raised by legislative auditors," said Eric Schwaab, the agency's deputy secretary. "These local projects have long been supported. It's not like this has been conducted in secret."
In recent months, $2 million in open-space funding has been approved for Calvert County's first indoor aquatic center, $1.4 million for the purchase of the Sonic Sports Arena in Cecil County and about $240,000 for indoor tennis lights in Montgomery County.
Program Open Space, established in 1969, is funded through transfer taxes on real estate transactions. The money is split between the state government and local communities based on a complicated formula, and much of it goes toward buying large tracts of land for preservation or parks. About $276 million has been allocated to the program over the last two years.
Local governments develop long-range plans on land preservation and recreation, and individual projects for which they seek reimbursement must be approved by the state's Board of Public Works. Public comment can be made at several times in the process.
"It's a wide-open, very public process," said Kristin Saunders Evans, assistant secretary for land resources at the natural resources department.
But some lawmakers said that the program's original intent seems to have morphed over the years, and they expressed interest in examining more closely how the money is spent.
"It is clearly worth a debate on legislation as to how globally the program should be defined and used," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who often works on environmental issues. "I don't want to pass judgment on a certain project, but if you're starting to do more indoor, bricks-and-mortar projects, that would raise some concerns."
Del. Joseph C. Boteler, a Baltimore County Republican who sits on the Environmental Matters Committee's open space panel, said the expenditures on indoor projects are "troubling." He said his community is quickly losing green space to development and that some proposals to acquire undeveloped land have been denied.
"The program has nothing to do with indoor activities," Boteler said. "Not that I wouldn't support those activities. They're good for the community too. But at the same time, with the lack of open space out there and the needs for funds to purchase open space, we should not be using the funds for something else."
Some environmentalists said indoor facilities may be needed in inner cities, for instance, or to provide a place for athletics in inclement weather. They also said the indoor facilities help build support for the overall program.
"I don't really care whether the soccer field is indoors or outdoors," said Ned Gerber, of the conservation group Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage. "Outdoors is wonderful and preferable, but the reality is a covered facility might be appropriate."
The pool of open-space money has long been the subject of political quarreling. For several years, governors diverted money from the program to balance the budget. Govs. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, diverted $480 million over several years. Ehrlich later restored funding. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has pledged to fully fund the program.
"We weren't fighting over whether the projects were indoor or outdoor," Schwaab said. "We were just fighting for the money to be spent on the program."