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Abandoned Plan to Sell State Land Could Haunt Ehrlich

Democrats' Move to Amend Constitution a Ploy to Embarrass Governor, Republicans Contend

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page B01

Questions that have dogged Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. about an aborted plan to sell state preservation land to a wealthy construction executive could follow Ehrlich onto the ballot in 2006, under an initiative gaining support in Annapolis.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly say they are giving serious consideration to a constitutional amendment that would require the governor to gain legislative approval before disposing of any state park or preservation land.

The proposed sale of 836 acres of St. Mary's woodland -- bought in 2003 for preservation -- to a construction company owner sparked the anger of state lawmakers and environmentalists. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

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"It lets us write into the Constitution the principle that, once land has been acquired for conservation, it cannot be quietly sold off to a developer," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the proposal.

Ehrlich (R) plans to fight the measure, which his communications director called "preposterous."

"This is all anti-Ehrlich politics at work," Paul E. Schurick said.

Frosh acknowledged that the measure serves policy and political agendas. Curbing the governor's ability to sell conservation land has emerged as a serious goal of the legislature this year, with five bills aimed at limiting such transactions.

A constitutional amendment, however, should it pass, would eliminate the threat of a veto and place the matter before voters in November 2006, just as Ehrlich comes up for reelection. Democrats believe that confluence could damage the governor politically: Such an initiative not only would have the potential to boost turnout from deeply committed environmentalists, but it also would keep the spotlight on a land deal Ehrlich's allies say they would just as soon forget.

That deal, pushed by several of Ehrlich's top aides, involved the proposed sale of 836 acres of St. Mary's County woodland to Baltimore construction company owner Willard Hackerman, a businessman with close political ties to the governor.

The state bought the parcel for $2.5 million from a conservation group in November 2003 with a promise to preserve it. But the proposed sale to Hackerman a year later included no formal guarantee that, once it changed hands, it would not be developed. State records show that Hackerman discussed his intention to seek a zoning change and subdivide a portion of the property for residential development.

Ehrlich has said that selling to Hackerman was merely a proposal and that he never signed off on it. Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said he believes "the whole deal was a mess," and "it should never have happened."

But it does not warrant a proposal to amend the Constitution, Stoltzfus said. To do that would be "little more than a political ploy meant to embarrass the governor," he said. "I don't think that's the proper use of our state's Constitution."

The measure would need the support of three-fifths of the members to go on the ballot, which means 85 votes in the House and 29 in the Senate. Frosh submitted the bill with 29 co-sponsors, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), signaling that it has strong support in the chamber.

"In Maryland, this is as close to motherhood and apple pie as you get," Frosh said. "We're talking about Maryland's heritage, about protecting farmland, woods and the Chesapeake Bay. I can't imagine a better use of the Constitution."

Not all Democrats have settled on the amendment as the best route.

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