Three weeks after gleeful Charles County environmentalists hosted their first open house to show off the majestic Potomac River vistas from their new state park, state officials began privately discussing the possible sale of the park to a Virginia real estate developer, records show.
In August 2003, the vice president of Toll Bros. Inc., William J. Gilligan, wrote to Maryland General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford to propose buying Chapman Forest for "upwards of $28 million" to build homes on part of the 2,200-acre state park and preserve.
Rutherford responded with a promise: "Your interest will be kept on file . . . and you will be notified of future opportunities." Six months later, records obtained under the Maryland Public Records Act show, a portion of the park was in the process of being declared "excess," which would enable the state to sell it.
State real estate officials said yesterday that no final decision has been made on what will become of the Charles County parkland, which was purchased in 1998 from a developer with the goal of preserving it. The land includes the 860-acre state park and a 1,340-acre wooded reserve named for former governor Parris N. Glendening (D), who oversaw the transaction.
This year, records show, state officials have been actively researching the fate of the park, weighing the sale to a developer and another plan, backed by Charles County officials, to put ballfields on a 60-acre slice of the park.
Local environmentalists said they were shocked that the property they had fought to protect could become a battleground anew. They said the proposal carried echoes of a star-crossed plan by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to sell 836 acres of wooded land in nearby St. Mary's County.
"This is outrageous. We are not going to allow this to happen," said Bonnie Bick, president of the Chapman Forest Foundation. "This is just another underhanded deal by the Ehrlich administration and Charles County to take this land."
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said there has never been any high-level talk of selling the land to a developer. "This is the first I've heard of any of this," he said.
Ehrlich has said repeatedly that he has never had plans to sell off state parkland to developers. In a statement issued after critics blasted his administration over the aborted plan to sell the St. Mary's property to a Baltimore contracting executive, the governor stated his position emphatically: "Our beautiful parks and public forests never were and never will be for sale."
But records show that as recently as this summer, the fate of Chapman Forest State Park was uncertain.
On June 25, Robert Rosenbush, a mid-level state planner, issued an internal memo recommending that the administration sell the land to developers. The state's real estate office, he wrote, should follow Rutherford's direction and "should seek 'competitive offers' for the sale and re-use of the property. Mr. Gilligan of the Toll Brothers should be sent a notice of the search for competitive offers."
Rosenbush's boss in the state Department of Planning, Linda C. Janey, instead backed the option favored by Charles County officials -- giving the county 60 acres of the parkland for use as ballfields and taking in exchange 166 acres of county parkland. Planners recommended in July that the ballfield proposal be taken to the state Board of Public Works, which rules on all land transactions. But Rutherford's office held onto the proposal.
A spokesman for Rutherford said yesterday that only the secretary could explain why no action has been taken and that he could not be reached for comment. Gilligan did not return messages left at his Toll Bros. office.
State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said any pursuit that would alter the property, even for recreational purposes, would trigger an angry reaction from state and local environmental leaders. He said that when a Toll Bros. executive approached him about the possible purchase, he rejected the idea immediately.