Another 'sleazy' land deal?

The O'Malley administration today pulled back from a sweetheart deal to buy $2.8 million in Eastern Shore farmland and hand it over for $1 a year to a Democratic campaign donor who wanted to use it as an "organic food hub" for the region. After questions from Comptroller Peter Franchot and an article in The Sun, the administration abruptly dropped the second two elements of the plan and instead pushed through the purchase with a promise to conduct requests for proposals for the rest. That's an improvement over the original idea, but it still represents seat-of-the-pants governing that is unlikely to produce the best results.

In voting against the land purchase, Mr. Franchot called the deal "sleazy," a fighting word in the context of state land deals that was most famously used to describe an attempted sale of parkland by the Ehrlich administration a decade ago. Gov. Martin O'Malley railed against that deal back when he was a candidate for the office he now holds, but the process his administration just went through has a lot more in common with what happened then than he might like to admit.


In 2004, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration sought to sell 800 acres of protected St. Mary's County parkland to the late Baltimore construction magnate Willard Hackerman with no guarantee that he would not then develop it. This time, Mr. O'Malley's administration sought to purchase 255 acres of farmland near Millington in Kent County with the intention of leasing it to the nonprofit Eastern Shore Food Hub Corp., led by Cleo Braver, an organic farmer and former environmental lawyer. In terms of political connectedness, she isn't in Hackerman's league, but she has given more than $40,000 to Democratic candidates — including Mr. O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — during the last decade.

What's similar is that in both cases, the ideas for the deals originated from the well-connected individuals, not from some deliberate policy process guided by the state. Hackerman approached the Ehrlich administration about buying state land and then giving away most of the development rights. The Ehrlich administration steered him toward what was known as the Salem tract in St. Mary's County. Similarly, Ms. Braver approached the state with her idea of the hub — which would involve retail and wholesale markets for local fruits and vegetables, including those Ms. Braver intended to grow on site — and the state then looked around for an appropriate site to purchase to make it happen.


In Hackerman's case, the state didn't bother with a new appraisal of the property and planned to sell it to him for the same price it paid — which meant he stood to gain more than the purchase price in tax breaks. In Ms. Braver's case, she would have gotten what Department of Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill estimated at a $27,000 annual break on the fair market rent for the farmland. Separately, the state planned to allocate $500,000 in bond funds to help get the food hub off the ground.

There is, however, one key difference. Amid public outcry, Hackerman dropped his proposal, and the land was not ultimately sold. The O'Malley administration, by contrast, went ahead with the land purchase. Mr. Gill said that the purchase stands on its own. The land scored highly on his agency's scale for assessing the environmental sensitivity of land under consideration for conservation, it fits within the state's "greenprint" and it connects well with other land under preservation, he said. But that is no doubt true of many parcels in Maryland. The question is, would the state have sought out this land, and would it still be buying it now, if it did not ultimately intend to fulfill Ms. Braver's vision?

Don't get us wrong, we certainly support the idea of local, organic farming, and we are glad to see the state step back and open this idea to competition. But the way this deal went down raises questions about just how thorough and objective the process is going to be from this point forward. Will there be real competition for this project if the state is effectively just asking for proposals from those who want to execute Ms. Braver's idea? And given Mr. O'Malley's repeated references during the meeting to the results of last week's election and his assumption that Republican Governor-elect Larry Hogan "probably won't be much in favor of open space or the buy local initiative" — Mr. Hogan has not said much about either, though coincidentally enough, Lt. Governor-elect Boyd Rutherford was heavily involved in the Hackerman deal — will this be a rush job to ensure the process plays out before inauguration day on Jan. 21?

Ms. Braver's intentions may have been more noble than Hackerman's, but this deal still amounts to a self-interested, well connected party driving state policy. That was bad when it happened under Mr. Ehrlich's administration, and it's bad under Mr. O'Malley's too.