State officials agreed yesterday to buy one of the largest privately owned forests left on the Eastern Shore for $14.4 million, though not without questions about whether taxpayers are paying too much to preserve land in the depressed real estate market.
The Board of Public Works unanimously approved purchase of the 4,800-acre tract in Worcester County, pointing to its ecological value as a habitat for rare plants, birds and other animals. It is one of two major land preservation deals announced last month by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Together, they will cost $71 million for 9,200 acres of woods, fields and undeveloped waterfront.
Though supportive of the Worcester County purchase, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp expressed concern that state policies may be depriving taxpayers of bargains when property values have plummeted.
Officials used the higher of two appraisals in setting the property's worth; another appraisal put the land's value at $2 million less. General Services officials said that they believed the higher appraisal was more realistic, and that federal rules required them to disclose the appraisal to the land's owners. One-third of the purchase cost is to be paid with federal funds.
Franchot and Kopp pressed administration officials to see whether the rules might be changed to give the state greater flexibility in negotiating future deals.