During a legislative hearing in Annapolis on Tuesday, state Sen. Roy P. Dyson handed out photos of Great Mills after a series of floods in the past century and questioned a proposed deal that would turn over state conservation land to a private buyer.
Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said that the land was purchased by the state to protect the St. Mary's River from development and help prevent flooding and that it should stay under state control.
The deal, which members of the Senate Budget and Tax Committee attacked Tuesday, would sell 836 acres of woodlands to the head of a Baltimore construction company for $2.5 million, the same price the state paid for it about a year ago.
The woodlands near Indian Bridge Road and a state park are zoned for rural preservation -- there are no water or sewer lines, and builders can't put up more than one house on every five acres. But the land is between the booming Leonardtown and Lexington Park areas -- a perfect site for new schools.
The potential buyer, Willard Hackerman, the president and chief executive of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., would donate 120 or more acres for schools, state officials said, and would donate the conservation easements back to the state so the land would remain undeveloped.
Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the St. Mary's Board of County Commissioners, has said it could be a win-win deal: The county could get land for a 1,200-student high school and an 800-student middle school where it needs it, and rural land would be preserved.
After a year and a half of looking for land for schools around the Leonardtown and Lexington Park areas, officials are ready to start building. Meanwhile, land prices keep rising.
"We need to build five, maybe six new schools in St. Mary's County," said state Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), whose district includes part of St. Mary's. "If part of this helps our children by helping us find locations for schools . . . and it serves our community in that respect, it seems to me that may be a good thing. . . . We should focus on what good can come of this."
But at the hearing Tuesday, senators were not focusing on best-case scenarios. They asked why only one buyer has been considered. They asked why the land price hadn't increased over the past eight months. They asked why the state would broker a deal to get a major political donor such as Hackerman a tax break.
A legislative analyst showed how much the buyer might save on his income taxes, depending on the appraisal of the land. The estimates ranged from about $700,000 to nearly $7 million in federal, state and local income taxes.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) asked General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford, "Is there any restriction in your so-called agreement that would ensure that any land contributed to schools would be out of the flood plain area?"
Rutherford said he didn't know what part of the land would be considered for schools, but the state would have no control over that.
Rutherford said the buyer proposed the deal to the state, and several potential parcels were discussed, but the buyer quickly focused on St. Mary's County.
After Tuesday's hearing, Rutherford said he will talk with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) about the negotiations and questions from senators, and Ehrlich will decide whether to proceed with the deal.