State withdraws proposed $1 no-bid lease deal for Shore farm

The O'Malley administration backed down Wednesday from its proposal to lease a Kent County farm to a politically connected nonprofit for $1 a year, promising to rebid the contract competitively.

The move likely pushes the decision about whether to pursue the deal into the administration of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who might not view it as favorably as his predecessor. A spokesman for Hogan had no comment Wednesday night.


O'Malley administration officials had proposed a two-part deal under which the state would buy the 255-acre Wick Farm near the town of Millington for $2.8 million using Program Open Space money. As The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday, they were planning to immediately lease the farm to the Eastern Shore Food Hub Corp. for $1 a year.

The company is a nonprofit controlled by Cleo Braver, a Talbot County organic farmer who has contributed more than $40,000 to Democratic candidates over the past decade.


The state Board of Public Works agreed Wednesday to purchase the land for preservation after the administration said it was scrapping the plan to lease it without bid to Braver's group.

The board's 2-1 vote — with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp in favor — means the state will take title to the farm under Program Open Space, which uses transfer tax revenue to preserve land for agricultural preservation, environmental protection and recreation. The no vote came from Comptroller Peter Franchot, who called the deal "sleazy."

"This kind of contract with political contributors is what destroys public trust in the integrity of government," said Franchot, who had himself received $750 from Braver. O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, defeated this month in his run for governor, are among the Democrats who have received contributions of more than $1,000 from Braver in recent years.

Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill assured board members that the purchase stands on its own merits for its ecological and recreational value as well as the opportunity to keep the land in agricultural production.

"This is an area that is under threat of development," said Gill.

Franchot scoffed at the assertion, saying the department sought out a property to meet the needs of the food hub. "What in God's name is the risk of development in a remote part of the state that has a railroad running through it?" he said.

A related proposal on which the board deferred action last month was not on the agenda Wednesday.

That item, a $500,000 grant to the same nonprofit toward development of a "food hub" in Easton for distributing locally grown products, was not brought back because officials realized the company could not show proof in writing that it had raised the required matching funds, said Carol Gilbert, an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Community Development.


Under plans Braver presented to the state, the food hub would buy food grown in an "environmentally sustainable" way from local farms — including its own — then repackage and sell it from a facility on land provided at nominal rent by the town of Easton.

Braver did not return calls seeking her comment.

While the plan won the support of the O'Malley administration, it had recently stirred opposition among some Eastern Shore businesses, including distributors and farmers who see it as state-subsidized competition.

Franchot said he was viewing the deal from the perspective of longtime family farmers on the Shore.

"How can they get in on a deal like this?" Franchot said.

Gill said the land is not as valuable as some might think. He estimated the state could get about $27,000 a year under a market-rate lease for the part of the property suitable for agriculture.


While Gill vowed to move forward with a request for bids from any nonprofits interested in starting a food hub, he estimated that the process would take three to six months. That would take it past Jan. 21, when Hogan will be sworn in to succeed O'Malley.

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O'Malley defended his administration's support for the concept of food hubs, including one in Baltimore that received board approval last month. He said it makes sense to produce as much food as possible locally rather than truck it across the country at a time when climate change is a concern.

"Some may think free markets would work best," the governor mused. Others, he said, see a need for government to sometimes create the markets.

Franchot said he sees no way a fair competition for the farm lease could be conducted in the remaining weeks of the O'Malley administration.

"I hope it never sees the light of day," he said.

The comptroller said he has no objection to the concept of food hubs in general, coming from one of the "greenest" towns in the state.


"I'm from Takoma Park," he said. "I like organic vegetables."