Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he does not expect state leaders to proceed with plans to sell 836 acres of state-protected woodland in St. Mary's County to a politically connected developer.

The proposed land deal, which was developed in secret and backed strongly by the governor's aides, brought sharp questions from top lawmakers who asked why the state would sell ecologically sensitive real estate.

"This may just go away," Ehrlich (R) said yesterday.

For the deal to go through, it first would have to be presented to the state's three-member Board of Public Works for a vote.

The governor, who sits on the board, said he "would be rather surprised if the [proposal] appeared on the board's agenda any time in the near future."

Last week, Ehrlich started to distance himself from the growing controversy over the proposed sale of the land to Willard Hackerman, president and chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. in Baltimore. The property sits at the headwaters of the St. Mary's River.

The proposed sale -- at $2.5 million, thought to be priced well below market value in the fast-growing Southern Maryland community -- involved land bought last year from a Virginia-based conservation group for preservation purposes. The state proposed allowing Hackerman to develop some of the land, under the condition that he donate 120 acres for two schools and give the state a protective easement over the rest.

That arrangement could have yielded for Hackerman a tax break worth more than $6 million. When details came to light last month, legislative leaders condemned the proposal.

Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) called the idea "Program Open Space in reverse."

The governor has acknowledged being briefed on the St. Mary's County deal. But he said last week that he never gave it a green light, and that he does "not get involved with the details of individual land purchases."

His remarks yesterday came shortly after another member of the board, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), defended the proposal as fair.

Hackerman is a longtime friend and political patron of Schaefer's, and the comptroller defended the construction executive at yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, calling him "one of the most decent men I've ever known in my life."

Ehrlich said yesterday that he barely knew Hackerman. Earlier this year, he appointed Hackerman to an unpaid post on the Maryland Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority, a board that issues tax-exempt bonds for public sector and nonprofit construction projects.

Conservation advisers to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had strongly objected to the sale of the protected land.