A Baltimore construction executive has retreated from his proposal to buy 836 acres of pristine St. Mary's County woodlands from the state, a top state official said last night.
Willard Hackerman, president of Whiting-Turner Construction Co., also has pledged $1 million for schools in St. Mary's County as part an attempt to extract himself gracefully from the proposed land deal, which has brought increasing scrutiny.
"It's a gesture of goodwill," Boyd K. Rutherford, the state's secretary of general services, said in an interview last night. "My understanding is he no longer wants to go through with what was proposed."
Rutherford and other top aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) had backed a plan to sell the woodlands to Hackerman for $2.5 million -- believed to be well below market value -- even though the state bought the parcel from a conservation group and promised to preserve it.
Questions arose after the Ehrlich administration attempted to push through the sale to Hackerman without naming him and without obtaining formal guarantees that the property would not be developed.
State officials said only that "a benefactor, a philanthropist" had come to the state with a plan to buy the land, donate a portion for schools and sell an easement back to the state to ensure that it would be preserved.
Hackerman has not spoken publicly about his role in the deal, which could have netted him more than $6 million in tax credits. But in a letter dated Thursday and released yesterday by Rutherford, the construction mogul pledged the $1 million gift, which would be used to put schools on part of the parcel, and urged that the rest of the land be preserved. "I will not be involved in the land," he writes. "I am not a land developer and I have a history of preserving land."
The letter does not say definitively whether Hackerman has ended his pursuit of the property, but Rutherford said he believed that was Hackerman's intent. In the letter, Hackerman proposes that St. Mary's County officials use the $1 million gift toward the cost of buying 150 to 200 acres from the state and building schools there.
In a formal response sent yesterday, Rutherford says that the offer was "truly appreciated" but notes that there still may be opposition to building schools on the property, given the interest among environmentalists that it be preserved.
Some opposition may come from Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who is scheduled to chair a hearing this morning to look into the original proposal. He said some may question why land set aside for preservation, that had been rated as having a high ecological value, would be considered surplus and used for school construction.
He said he suspected that Hackerman was trying to whitewash troubling aspects of the original proposal. "Everyone's backpedaling furiously," Franchot said.
Thomas F. McKay, president of the St. Mary's Board of County Commissioners, said last night that the county almost certainly will accept the $1 million gift.
"We'll accept it with open arms," said McKay (R-At Large), who had not been told of the pledge. "The offer is overwhelming."
Ehrlich, who has sought to distance himself from the deal, predicted last week that it would never come to pass.
Hackerman, who has contributed to both political parties, as well as to many charitable causes, is a close ally of William Donald Schaefer (D), the state comptroller and former governor.
Hackerman's company has done a variety of deals, including the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles.
Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.