Unlike his predecessor, who had made land acquisition a high priority for his administration, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) wants state executive agencies to consider selling off properties that aren’t worth the price taxpayers must pay to maintain them.
“We’re absolutely looking at surplusing properties wherever we can,” said Ehrlich, as reported in the November 13 Washington Post. “Just having government holding pieces of land that should be developed is a policy we want to confront.”
“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,” the Post reported in its November 13 article.
Identifying Burdensome Property
When Ehrlich took office in 2003, he directed state agencies to inventory their lands and other property holdings, and to identify those whose maintenance might be unduly burdensome on state taxpayers.
“Once my administration completes its inventory, we will initiate the public process to determine what property holds value for the people of Maryland, and what property siphons taxpayer dollars away from core government services,” stated Ehrlich, according to the November 24 Greenwire.
“When I took office in 2003,” Ehrlich notes in a November 23, 2004 statement on the governor’s Web site, “I followed through on a campaign promise and asked state officials a simple question: What property does the State own? Remarkably, no one could answer my question.
“In previous years,” Ehrlich’s statement continues, “State government failed to inventory billions of dollars in state-owned property–cars, land, yachts, and airplanes–that [was] bought and maintained with taxpayer money. This was a lack of accountability for taxpayer dollars in the face of a $2 billion budget shortfall.”
Selling property that is expensive or difficult to maintain while serving little public good can, Ehrlich press secretary Henry Fawell told the Washington Post, raise immediate money at the time of sale, eliminate ongoing property management costs, and enhance future revenues by once again subjecting the properties to state and local tax rolls.
Old Guard Fighting Back
Ehrlich’s effort is generating fierce opposition from supporters of former Gov. Parris Glendening (D). His allies in the state legislature are seeking to amend the state constitution to prevent Ehrlich from changing course.
Delegates Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) and Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery) have sponsored a constitutional amendment that would require legislative approval for any proposed sale of state land that had been purchased through state preservation programs.
To amend the state constitution, the Franchot-Frosh proposal must be approved by a 60 percent super-majority vote in each legislative chamber, and then by a majority of voters on a statewide ballot.
“We are both stunned and baffled by [Ehrlich’s program to inventory properties],” said George Maurer, a senior planner at the activist Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as reported by the November 15 Greenwire. “This is not just a matter of selling off the small oddball parcel here and there. This list really creates the appearance of a list to create income or profit for the state.”
Countering the Opposition
Countered Ehrlich in his November 23 statement, “Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, a well-respected Senate Democrat, told The Baltimore Sun, ‘When you’ve got as big of a deficit as we have, you’ve got to be looking at every single thing. You may find you have a lot of state-owned land that serves no purpose, and it would make sense to sell.’ … As part of my efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, I wanted to determine which land holdings improved the Bay’s health and which holdings had little or no environmental value.
“This exercise in good government has met heated opposition from a few political opportunists and interest groups,” added Ehrlich, “but they will not weaken my promise to the citizens of Maryland. I will restore accountability to State agencies that purchase, manage, and sell property with taxpayer dollars.”
Stephan Abel, communications director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), added that opponents are overstating the amount of land being considered for sale. Fawell agreed.
“DNR reviewed over 430,000 acres of state-owned lands and identified 2,900 acres [less than 1 percent] that presented management challenges,” Fawell told the Baltimore Sun. “Many parcels were isolated or detached from the main parcels, had a marginal resources value and/or had a relative high cost of management considering the level of public interest.”
“Be assured that DNR remains committed to protecting Maryland’s open space and providing recreational opportunities for Maryland’s citizens,” added Abel.
Identifying Real Benefits
Richard Hug, a member of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, illustrated for the Post some potential benefits of the Ehrlich plan. Hug described how a real estate developer had expressed interest in building a golf course and retirement community on land owned by the university.
“It’s a very expensive piece of property, and the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Does the university need all that?’ The logic dictates that you look at it and see if you need it all.” Such analyses, argue program supporters, are especially worthwhile considering the ability to direct land sale revenues to cash-strapped university projects.
“Make no mistake,” says Ehrlich in the Web site statement, “our work is not done. We will continue scrutinizing state-owned property to determine whether it is worth the high cost taxpayers shoulder to maintain it.”
The inventory project, said Ehrlich, is “emblematic of my efforts to restore fiscal discipline in Annapolis after years of ‘tax and spend’ government.”
James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York, office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.
For more information …
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s statement defending the inventory-and-sell effort is available online at http://www.gov.state.md.us/gov.html.