Maryland officials were concerned that a Baltimore construction company owner would subdivide and develop a portion of St. Mary's County woodlands set aside for preservation if he bought the tract from the state, according to internal documents released yesterday.
Despite recent assurances that the deal was meant to provide tax breaks, not development rights, officials in the Department of Natural Resources believed otherwise.
"The potential purchaser of the parcel plans to seek a change in zoning to facilitate residential development," an unsigned department memo states.
Top aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) had backed the plan to sell the 836-acre tract to the politically connected executive, Willard Hackerman, for $2.7 million despite the state's promise to preserve it.
Hackerman has not spoken publicly about his role in the sale, which could have netted him more than $6 million in tax credits, and he declined to comment yesterday.
The deal fell apart this week after it received heightened scrutiny from lawmakers, who questioned why the state would sell property it had just purchased for a price believed to be well below market value. Legislative leaders sharply criticized the Ehrlich administration's effort to push through the sale to Hackerman without naming him and without obtaining formal guarantees that the property would not be developed.
State officials had 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.
Late yesterday, the state released hundreds of pages of letters and internal memos related to the deal in response to a request made by The Washington Post under the Maryland Public Records Act.
The records show, among other things, that Department of Natural Resources officials believed Hackerman's plan for the land included subdividing it and building houses there.
That contradicts what both Hackerman and state officials said in letters released earlier this week.
"I am not a land developer and I have a history of preserving land," Hackerman wrote last week, when backing out of the deal.
A separate document released yesterday makes public for the first time the views of officials from the Conservation Fund, the Virginia-based nonprofit group that sold the state the land, which sits at the headwaters of the St. Mary's River.
The state's plan to sell the acreage to Hackerman "was extremely disturbing and unacceptable to the Conservation Fund," an unsigned Department of Natural Resources memo states. "Conservation Fund staff called [state officials] to warn them of impending embarrassment to the governor if corrective measures were not taken immediately," the memo states.
Additional memos suggest that Hackerman thought he had the support of leading Democratic legislators -- a notion that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) vigorously disputed yesterday.
On Oct. 12, shortly after details of the land deal surfaced in the media, Miller and Busch wrote a letter voicing their concerns to the state Board of Public Works, which would have to approve the sale.
The next week, Maryland General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford faxed a copy of the lawmakers' letter to Hackerman, with this note on the cover letter: "Will, attached is a copy of a letter sent by Senator Miller and Speaker Busch opposing the proposed sale of the Salem Tract. It appears that they may be saying different things in private than what they say in public."
Anne Hubbard, a spokeswoman for Rutherford, said yesterday that Rutherford's understanding of the lawmakers' private positions was based on what Hackerman had told him. On another fax cover sheet, dated Oct. 20, Hackerman wrote to Rutherford: "I spoke to Mike Miller and he is very supportive."
Miller said yesterday that he discussed the project with Hackerman but never voiced support for it.
"He's a very kind man, a very philanthropic man, but I've told him from the beginning that he's misguided on the issue," Miller said. "I've opposed it publicly as well as privately from the beginning. . . . I would never support a project like this."
Busch said the first conversation he had with Hackerman about the project was at a Baltimore Ravens game Oct. 24, well after Hackerman suggested he had legislative support.
"I explained why I didn't think this was a good deal," Busch said. "My views haven't changed at all. You can't do business this way."
The correspondence made public yesterday also underscored how long the deal had been under consideration.
In a July 21, 2003, letter to Rutherford, Hackerman thanked the secretary for a meeting held a week earlier. "I feel encouraged by the fact that we may well be negotiating for parcels of land in Maryland," Hackerman wrote. "I hope to hear from you or your people soon."