Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration is considering reselling 836 acres of Southern Maryland timberland purchased a year ago as open space to an undisclosed buyer at a price that could result "in a significant financial loss to the state," according to the legislature's chief fiscal analyst.
Memos made public yesterday suggest that the administration has been in talks for several months with a potential buyer, who is referred to in the memos only as a "Benefactor . . . with a history of philanthropy."
State officials have indicated that they would sell the property, located near a rapidly developing section of St. Mary's County, for about $2.5 million, the same price paid for it in October 2003, analyst Warren G. Deschenaux wrote in a memo to lawmakers this week. They have no plans to seek a new appraisal, he wrote.
"This land may be far more valuable than it was only a year ago," wrote Deschenaux, director of policy analysis in the Department of Legislative Services.
David Humphrey, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, called Deschenaux's assessment "wildly premature."
"There is no agreement of sale," said Humphrey, whose agency manages state land. "There's no contract that's been negotiated."
Memos from General Services said the potential buyer has offered to donate property for two public schools, a prospect that delighted St. Mary's County officials.
But Democratic lawmakers expressed outrage at what they were learning about the possible sale.
"Quite frankly, it looks like one of the best sweetheart deals I've ever seen in state government," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "It more than smells. It stinks."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the administration's deliberations sent a disturbing signal about its commitment to land preservation. Busch said he does not know the identity of the potential buyer but assumes the person is someone who is politically connected. "Otherwise, they would release the name of the 'benefactor,' " Busch said.
Busch said he and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) plan to lobby the state Board of Public Works to block the sale. The three-member panel, whose approval is needed for major state land deals, consists of Ehrlich (R), Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
Schaefer's and Kopp's offices declined to comment yesterday. Ehrlich's office referred calls to Humphrey.
In an Aug. 17 memo to legislators, General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford wrote that the state had been approached by a "Benefactor" interested in buying the property and donating development rights to the Maryland Environmental Trust. In addition, Rutherford wrote, "the Benefactor" had discussed with St. Mary's County his willingness to donate as much as 120 acres of the land for two school sites.
Rutherford also wrote that "the Benefactor" informed the state that the donation of development rights could not begin until he has held the property for a year. "In addition, for tax purposes, he cannot formally commit to the donations in advance," Rutherford wrote.
However, Rutherford wrote, "the Benefactor's history of philanthropy and his reputation as a man of his word has eased some initial concerns" related to the sale.
In St. Mary's County, some leaders expressed hope the land would be used for new schools. "It could be a win-win all the way around," said Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners.
The state wants to keep the land rural and limit development there, McKay said, and the county is hoping to get a school complex.
In three to five years, McKay said, county officials would hope to build a 1,200-student high school and an 800-student middle school between the fast-growing areas of Leonardtown and Lexington Park.
He said that he did not know the name of the potential buyer but that he believed the person was a Maryland resident with a long history of philanthropy to schools.