The unsuccessful attempt by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration to sell off environmentally sensitive St. Mary's County woodlands to a politically connected builder is part of a broader strategy to offer up state-owned acreage to developers, records show.
The picture that emerges from internal memos, letters and e-mail made public this week was confirmed by Ehrlich in an interview: He plans to put a considerable amount of state land up for sale.
"We're absolutely looking at surplusing properties wherever we can," Ehrlich (R) said. "Just having government holding pieces of land that should be developed is a policy we want to confront."
Discussions about selling off state land have been going on for months and involve several agencies, including those with extensive property holdings, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Transportation and the state's university system.
The attempt to sell the St. Mary's acreage to Baltimore construction company owner Willard Hackerman was only among the most recent transactions contemplated by state officials. Previously, Ehrlich's top campaign fundraiser sought to deal Horn Point, 840 acres of university-owned property on Maryland's Eastern Shore, to a developer who envisioned it as the site for a golf course and senior living facility. The parcel on the Choptank River, part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is considered an ecological gem.
Ehrlich says there are legitimate reasons for the state to shed property. Doing so can raise money, eliminate maintenance costs and restore land to the tax rolls.
But the strategy reverses a policy championed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who sought to buy every available acre of undeveloped land to combat sprawl.
Some legislative leaders and environmentalists say the new turn undermines years of state investment and raises the specter of cronyism, as has been alleged in the deal with Hackerman, a contributor to both major political parties.
"It's clear that the Ehrlich administration has declared open season on open space," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "What's at stake here is the fate of Maryland's most treasured resources."
Franchot said that the St. Mary's County land deal is a case in point.
Records released this week, in response to a request by The Washington Post under the Maryland Public Records Act, show that the Ehrlich administration pushed aggressively since mid-2003 to sell 836 acres just purchased from a land conservation group to Hackerman, owner of Whiting-Turner Construction Co. Although Ehrlich aides justified the deal by pledging that the land would be protected by easements, internal state memos show that the actual intent was to subdivide it for residential development.
One memo even notes a request by Hackerman to clear-cut a section of adjacent state forest so newly built homes would have an unobstructed view of the St. Mary's River.
Under pressure from lawmakers last week, Hackerman backed away from the deal. He has not returned messages left at his office and home.
The St. Mary's deal was similar to an earlier effort to see Horn Point declared surplus so it could be sold to a developer. Located along the Choptank River, its marshes, ponds and wooded trails are used by university researchers for experiments. Also, thousands of schoolchildren take ecological tours there every year.
The University System of Maryland's Board of Regents debated the issue in a series of closed meetings in August. One of those arguing for the deal was Richard E. Hug, a regent who is Ehrlich's chief fundraiser.
Hug said in an interview yesterday that a developer -- Cambridge real estate broker Robert Spedden -- expressed interest in building a conference center, retirement community and golf course on the site.
"It's a very expansive piece of property, and the first thing that came to my mind was, 'Does the university need all that?' " Hug said. "The logic dictates that you look at it and see if you need it all."
Donald F. Boesch, president of the environmental science center at the site, said he urged the regents to reject the sale. "After seeing what he had in mind, there was no way we could do that," he said.
In a divided vote, the Board of Regents rejected the proposal after learning that easements prevented them from proceeding without approval from Cambridge, Hug said. "In the short term, that's off the table," Hug said. "That doesn't mean it will be off the table forever."
In fact, the university is in the process of creating an inventory of unused land on each campus that officials there might be willing to sell.
Ehrlich said similar efforts are underway at other state agencies. Records released by the Department of Natural Resources this week show that agency has identified nearly 3,000 acres of property that could be sold.
That effort also has detractors. One internal memo warned Ehrlich that selling off land could generate "perception problems." That has turned out to be true of the Hackerman deal, which collapsed after lawmakers objected to Ehrlich aides' identifying a buyer for the land even before it was declared surplus.
Wesley Johnson, who wrote the memo, described in an interview last week the consensus on his staff that the state should not "become a land broker."
"Word was out there," he said. "I even got a letter from a woman in Delaware who said she heard that state parks are up for sale and wanted to know if she could make us an offer."
Staff writer Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.