Md. panel expected to OK Shore preservation deal

The Baltimore Sun

State officials are expected today to approve buying one of the largest privately owned forests on the Eastern Shore, despite complaints from some that government should not spend money on land preservation during a budget crisis.

At least two of the three members of the state Board of Public Works indicated yesterday that they support spending $14.4 million to buy nearly 4,800 wooded acres in Worcester County that natural resources officials say harbor a wealth of rare plants, birds and animals. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp have indicated that they will vote in favor of the purchase, but a spokesman said Comptroller Peter Franchot had yet to decide.

Recent state land deals, though praised by environmentalists, have generated criticism from some conservatives, who question such expenditures when the state is furloughing employees and slashing programs to close a budget gap that could reach $2 billion next year.

"We can't afford to be spending money right now," said Del. Anthony G. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican.

But an O'Malley spokesman called the purchase "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Land purchases are financed through a tax on property transfers. About one-third of this purchase would be covered by federal funds.

State officials relied on the higher of two appraisals of the property in negotiating the deal, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The lower appraisal valued the tract at $12.4 million.

State officials, who had refused repeated requests to disclose the appraisals, defended the use of the higher appraisal. Michael Gaines, assistant secretary of the Department of General Services, said the lower appraisal was discarded because it compared the deal with land sales in Virginia, while the higher appraisal focused on Maryland sales.

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