The Prince George's County park and planning agency has agreed to pay $3.3 million to acquire a farm partly owned by a relative of an agency board member and to lease it back to the owners for five years at no charge.

County officials said they had no immediate plans to use the 155-acre tobacco and wheat farm, which was partly owned by the son-in-law of board member Margaret Yewell. Eventually, they plan to make it part of a nearby regional park.

Yewell said she played no role in negotiating the purchase and abstained from voting on or discussing the matter when it came before the Planning Board, on which she has served since 1983.

County records show Yewell "temporarily absent" from a Planning Board meeting in July when a final vote on the property purchase was taken.

"When I found out the commission and the {county} council had an interest in this property, I verbally stated that I would abstain from any discussion or any kind of vote having to do with that issue," Yewell said. "I have been very vigilant about this. I don't even know any of the details of this purchase."

Robert Archiprete, chief of park planning and development, said this week that the $3.3 million price is "fair and equitable," noting that three independent appraisers valued the property between $3 million and $4.3 million. He called the purchase "an integral part" of a long-range plan to add facilities like a polo field, botanical garden and country inn to the popular Robert M. Watkins Regional Park near Upper Marlboro.

County tax assessors say sales of large, undeveloped tracts in the area have virtually halted in the sluggish real estate market, but were averaging from $10,000 to $15,000 an acre during the last four years, a period in which land prices escalated rapidly. The park agency is paying $21,200 an acre for the farm property.

Yewell's son-in-law, Peter Buchheister, declined to comment on the transaction. Buchheister, who is married to Yewell's daughter, Eleanora, owns the farm on Watkins Park Drive with his three brothers.

Parks officials said they moved ahead with the purchase although the property does not border Watkins Regional Park. They say their expansion plans for the park will require acquisition of an adjacent 195-acre parcel whose owner has been unwilling to sell.

The planning agency, a division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, will finance the purchase over three years through a combination of capital improvement bonds and state grants, officials said. The state Board of Public Works last week approved an $880,000 appropriation to the county that will be used as the first installment for the purchase. The planning agency will apply to the state again for the next installment.

The acquisition comes at a time when the park and planning agency is under scrutiny by the Office of the State Prosecutor and independent auditors hired by the county to recommend improvements in internal controls.

The former head of the county park system, Hugh "Reds" Robey, and three other employees -- including one whose indictment was announced yesterday -- face trial in April on charges that they stole agency funds through a contract fraud scheme. An investigation by the state prosecutor into the agency is continuing, Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas Krehely said. Commission officials say they have taken internal steps to improve contract reviews and enforce ethical standards among employees.

Planning Board Vice Chairman Roy Dabney said Yewell followed agency rules by publicly disclosing her family connection to the property and "taking a walk" whenever the matter came up for discussion.

Dabney said the land purchase is "really needed" to provide better public access to the park. He said the board was satisfied with a staff recommendation on the property's price, which was derived after reviewing independent appraisals.

Archiprete said the commission was contacted three or four years ago by zoning lawyer Robert Manzi on behalf of the Buchheisters and John Young, the owner of the 195-acre farm adjoining the park, who expressed interest in selling their land. Young eventually backed out of discussions, but has said he would renew the talks sometime in the future, Archiprete said.

When negotiations began, he said, Peter Buchheister acknowledged his connection to Yewell. "That wasn't a factor as far as the {park and planning agency} was concerned. We had thought of that land as a park for many, many years, well before the time Mrs. Yewell came on the board," he said.

Three independent appraisers hired by the commission set the value of the Buchheister land at $3 million to $4.3 million, while an appraisal commissioned by the owners set the property value at $3.3 million. The price per acre ranged from $19,500 to $28,500, he said.

James Soresi, assistant supervisor of the county Department of Assessments and Taxation, said large blocks of undeveloped land near Watkins Regional Park were bringing an average price of $10,000 to $15,000 per acre before the downturn in the real estate market.

"Nothing's occurred to say that price has gone down, and nothing's occurred to say it's gone up . . . . No one's buying it right now," he said.