PSST. WANT TO BUY some gorgeous state-owned land in Maryland? Dozens of prime parcels -- pristine wooded trails, virgin marshes and environmentally sensitive ponds -- may soon be on the auction block if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration has its way. As the wolf guarding the henhouse of state land, Mr. Ehrlich would hang a "For Sale" sign on properties in every region of Maryland, from a single-acre tract at the Hallowing Point Research Center in Southern Maryland to 215 acres near a waterfall in Rocks State Park near the Pennsylvania state line. The governor's plans to divest Maryland of its state-owned natural resources are so ambitious that one official in the state's Department of Natural Resources, Wesley Johnson, correctly warned him of "perception problems" should the public come to see the governor as the Free State's chief land broker.
Judging from recent experience, the terms of sale might be downright cheap. Just this month Mr. Ehrlich tried to distance himself from a secretive sweetheart deal under which his administration planned to sell 836 acres of Southern Maryland forestland at a cut-rate price to a politically well-connected development magnate, Willard Hackerman of Baltimore, who stood to make a killing in tax breaks on the deal. Maryland officials bought the land, fully intending to sell it to Mr. Hackerman, from the Conservation Fund, which had no inkling of the state's plans. Mr. Ehrlich, who campaigned for office in 2002 bashing what he called a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, raised no objection when he first heard of the proposed land sale; he got cold feet only after a firestorm in the media and among state lawmakers.
The governor insists it's smart management for Maryland to unload its "excess" land -- never mind that many of these parcels were acquired with the express purpose of curbing the development sprawl that is overtaking the state. The land identified as disposable includes nearly 3,000 scenic acres in and around state parks, some of which is treasured by state residents. In one case, a parcel around the waterfall in Rocks State Park was purchased with the help of $34,000 raised by Maryland high school students in the 1990s, the Baltimore Sun reported. But where the public sees serene woods and trails, the governor, according to his aides, sees a chance to raise money, trim maintenance costs and restore land to the tax rolls. "Just having government holding pieces of land that should be developed is a policy we want to confront," Mr. Ehrlich told The Post.
We're willing to believe it makes sense for Maryland to sell some stray parcels, after careful case-by-case review. But what Mr. Ehrlich has in mind seems much broader and far less judicious; he has ordered state agencies to comb their land inventories with an eye to what can be sold. Aside from encouraging sprawl, that policy puts the state in the role of land broker, and gives rise to shady deals like the one involving Mr. Hackerman.