A piece of state land in St. Mary's County could provide a site for two or more new schools -- but the deal that would make it available is complicated and secretive enough to make some Maryland legislators suspicious.
The 836 acres, which the state agreed to buy from the Glatfelter Pulp Wood Co. in the final days of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration, lie just west of St. Mary's River State Park in a quiet wooded area that feels much farther from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the busy roads of Lexington Park, Great Mills and California than it is.
Now the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) might resell the land. A series of memos suggests that state officials have been negotiating with a potential buyer for several months.
Democratic leaders in the General Assembly asked why the potential buyer hasn't been named and why the $2.5 million price didn't increase since its purchase. Some called it a sweetheart deal and demanded explanations.
But in St. Mary's County, it sounds more like a great opportunity: The state wants to keep the land rural and limit development on it, said county commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), and county officials hope to get 120 to 200 acres for a school complex for free.
McKay said the public school system could build a middle school for 800 students and a high school for 1,200 students on a portion of the site south of St. Andrew's Church Road and west of Indian Bridge Road. The land is about halfway between Leonardtown and Great Mills high schools, said Bradley Clements, chief administrative officer for supporting services for the district, so it's a good location. He said there might even be space for an elementary school there, too.
"Land is getting scarce," Clements said. Officials have been looking for land for new schools for the past year and a half or so and have had a tough time finding suitable sites. "Finding that much land in the development districts is difficult. And if found, it would be very expensive."
The land in question is zoned for rural preservation, so building there is limited and there is no public water or sewer service. But it is close to another site that might be linked to the public system, so that problem could be solved, said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills).
Clements said that the district plans to build four elementary schools over the next six years and that design work on a new high school would begin in 2010, with construction starting in 2012. That building, he said, probably would be used first as a middle school as the growing population in the elementary schools moves through the grades, then converted to a high school.
He said he knew nothing about a private buyer. "All we have -- we received a copy of a letter that said this 800-some-acre [site] was possibly being surplused by the state, and if we have interest in the property to speak out," he said.
Some commissioners echoed that description of the situation, saying they had seen the paperwork from the state asking whether any government agencies were interested in the property. "They're running it through the state clearinghouse first, I think," Raley said.
McKay said he did not know the possible buyer's name but said he is a wealthy Maryland philanthropist with a history of giving to schools. His understanding was that the person is interested in the land and donations for potential tax benefits, he said.
A private buyer would have to hold onto the land for a certain length of time to qualify for certain tax benefits, McKay said. "So you're probably looking at several years before a decision is made on a school site," he said.
"If we were to purchase that property it would probably take $6 million to $10 million," McKay said. He said he has been assured that the state wants the land to be preserved, not carved into new developments.
"We think it makes sense . . . and the state's going to work with us," McKay said.