Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening is attempting to push through two multimillion-dollar land preservation deals in his final days in office, including one that would benefit an Ocean City businessman who contributes regularly to the Democratic Party.
Glendening (D) will ask the Board of Public Works today to authorize the state to pay $3.5 million to restrict development on more than 2,000 acres in Worcester County. The Eastern Shore property, known as Newport Farms, is owned by businessman Charles R. "Buddy" Jenkins, who has contributed recently to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, both Democrats.
Also on the agenda is a $15.4 million deal to preserve 25,000 acres of timberland on the Eastern Shore. The state would have to spend $3.4 million in cash, financing the rest with bonds already approved by the General Assembly.
If the deal goes forward, the timberland, owned by the logging company Glatfelter Pulp Wood, would become the second-largest chunk of land the state has ever bought for preservation.
Both proposals, however, have come under fire from lawmakers and officials from Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s transition team. And they are expected to enliven this morning's Board of Public Works meeting, one of Glendening's last before he leaves office in January.
The board's only other members are Schaefer, who despises Glendening and has rarely voted for a land preservation deal, and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), an environmentally friendly former legislator from Montgomery County who has yet to say how she will vote.
An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor-elect is concerned that Maryland cannot afford to spend millions of dollars on land conservation in the midst of the state's worst fiscal crisis in a decade.
"Now is not the time for the state to be spending money it does not have," said spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "There seems to be no end to these kinds of last-minute projects."
Glendening spokesman Charles F. Porcari countered that "Newport Farms represents perhaps the most pristine tract in one of Maryland's most fragile ecosystems. Five years from now, it would be a tragedy if this was a 10-acre parking lot serving a hotel filled with slot machines."
The House Appropriations Committee balked yesterday at the $15.4 million deal, voting to postpone the matter until the state's $550 million deficit for the current budget year is addressed.
"We have a serious fiscal problem of over half a billion dollars in '03, and that problem has not been addressed in a very conscientious way by this governor," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the committee. "If the issues on the budget were not so perplexing, this project would've passed."
Of the two projects, the Glatfelter proposal is a far better deal for the state, costing $700 an acre, compared with $1,750 an acre for Newport Farms. Maryland conservation officials said the Glatfelter deal is less expensive because the Arlington-based Land Conservation Fund has agreed to kick in $6.7 million.
While Schaefer has excoriated Glendening for trying to push through the Glatfelter deal, Schaefer spokeswoman Christine Duray said she is not sure how Schaefer will vote on the deal with Jenkins, a longtime Schaefer friend and campaign contributor.
"It's kind of unclear if he's going to support it or not," Duray said.