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Two Years After Failed Land Selloff, Measure Would Curb Governor's Reach

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Marylanders will vote Tuesday on a statewide ballot measure that would restrict the governor's power to sell state-owned parkland.

If the measure to amend the state constitution passes, the General Assembly will have final approval over transactions involving public parks and preserved land. Currently, the three-member state Board of Public Works, which includes the governor, has the authority to sell such properties.

Legislators voted to put the initiative on the ballot in the aftermath of an aborted land deal in 2004 in which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) tried to sell 836 acres of public woodlands in St. Mary's County to a construction executive with political ties to him.

The amendment is designed to make the sale of public land more transparent and to protect Maryland's open space amid rapid growth, said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery).

"Sprawl is gobbling up open space in Maryland, and I think most people feel that once we manage to acquire open space as parkland that it ought not to be sold," said Frosh, who helped to write the bill to place the measure on the ballot. "If we acquired it as open space or acquired it as parkland, I think people want to be assured that except in very unusual circumstances that it's going to remain protected."

Initially, Republicans opposed putting the question on the ballot, saying it was a ploy by Democrats to try to galvanize voters disenchanted with Ehrlich's land preservation record. But GOP leaders, including Ehrlich, later got behind the bill, which passed the Senate last year 49 to 0 and the House of Delegates 117 to 17.

Still, some Republicans oppose the measure. State Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said the proposed constitutional amendment is an unnecessary bureaucratic obstacle, calling the ballot measure "a joke" and "a total farce." He said that putting it on the ballot was an example of "political strong-arming" by Democrats.

"Anytime you have more hoops to jump through," Stoltzfus said of the amendment's restrictions, "I don't mind more hoops when it's merited. But this is a case probably where it wasn't merited. It certainly was a political firestorm. It was the governor's detractors trying to rabble-rouse, and they succeeded at doing it."

Stoltzfus said that he will vote against the measure Tuesday but that he is not actively campaigning against it. "We've got bigger fish to fry," he said.

Environmentalists and open-space advocates are campaigning to get voters to pass the measure.

"People feel that parklands should not be sold for development," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "It's pretty basic."

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters created a Web site, http://www.StopSprawlStopEhrlich.com , to highlight Ehrlich's connections to the St. Mary's land deal.

In 2004, the Ehrlich administration tried to sell preserved land near Great Mills to Willard Hackerman, a Baltimore businessman with political ties to Ehrlich. The state had bought the parcel from a conservation group in 2003 for $2.5 million with a promise to preserve it. But state records show that Hackerman discussed his intention to seek a zoning change and subdivide a portion of the property for residential development.

Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), a candidate for state comptroller, toured the St. Mary's site recently with state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) and Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's) to promote the ballot measure. Franchot said that it would help preserve open space and avoid "strip development."

"We're not going to allow any governor -- Democrat or Republican -- to sell off parklands," Franchot said. "What happens is, you have public parks turned into parking spaces and Burger Kings all across the state."

Over the summer, the Ehrlich administration took heat when Secretary of State Mary D. Kane proposed rewording the language of the measure. Kane is an Ehrlich appointee, and her husband, John Kane, heads the state Republican Party.

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters threatened a lawsuit, saying that Mary Kane's rewording was designed to confuse and mislead voters. Kane agreed to scrap her proposed wording, which was 174 words, and stick with the 52-word version approved by the General Assembly.

"What we were trying to do is make it more clear, and we decided that the 52-word legislative bill wording was adequate in explaining the amendment," Kane spokeswoman Melissa Scott said.

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