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State rolls out land preservation criteria
By BRIAN WITTE for the Star Democrat
Associated Press Writer
August 23, 2007 

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — State officials rolled out a plan Wednesday that provides a framework to determine the kind of land Maryland will seek to acquire under the state’s Program Open Space, spelling out that the most important natural lands should be at the top of the list.

The plan, which has been in the works since February, was presented after two recent land purchases on the Eastern Shore raised questions about how the state spends money in the open space program.

“I think what you’ll see here is an effort to be much more systematic, much more strategic, much more transparent about how we do our stateside acquisitions,” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin.

The plan, which Griffin described as “a work in progress,” will attempt to use science-based criteria to examine what land is the most environmentally beneficial.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said he believed the plan will help state agencies get better coordinated to use Program Open Space funding in the best possible way. O’Malley, a Democrat, pointed out that Maryland’s population has grown by 30 percent, while the amount of land that’s being used has grown by 100 percent, growth he described as “an unsustainable trajectory.”

“What we’re trying to do with the revisions to Program Open Space and this search for objective criteria is figure out a way to target those dollars so that they can go to the most important and impactful purchases of the open space that still exists in Maryland.”

State officials will focus on preserving blocks of forest and wetlands that contain Maryland’s most ecologically important remaining lands. The plan also calls for adding watershed lands and streams that support areas of high aquatic biodiversity.

In another aspect of the plan, parcels will be ranked within a specific target area. Areas will be evaluated on ecological value, recreational use and historic or cultural significance. Recreational use would include hiking trails and access to the Bay. While most of the money in the open space program will be used for conservation, some will still be used to acquire property for recreational activities.

The plan also calls for factoring in costs, and officials will monitor how much money is spent on different priorities. For example, the state will keep track of money used to protect the state’s so-called Green Infrastructure — the state’s most important natural lands — compared with recreational land. It will also track the cost per acre by county.

Program Open Space, which is funded by real-state transfer taxes, has been in Maryland since 1969. About 321,000 acres have been preserved under the program.

DNR will work with local jurisdictions and land trusts to target priority conservation areas and focus on outreach programs.

Griffin presented the plan to the Board of Public Works, which consists of O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot. In recent months, Franchot has questioned two properties on the Eastern Shore that were purchased under the open space program.

Earlier this month, the board voted to buy 74 acres at the northern tip of Kent Island for $7.2 million on a 2-1 vote on Wednesday, with Franchot opposing the deal because of the cost. Questions were raised about another purchase of a 270-acre farm in Grasonville after the $5 million price tag was higher than two appraisals, and it turned out that the owner was on O’Malley’s transition team.

On Wednesday, Franchot complimented the new framework for planning outlined by Griffin. 
“Obviously we’ve always prioritized our purchases, but this is really a step forward as far as making sure that our open space dollars are spent on the top priorities,” Franchot said.

Franchot also underscored his belief that the state’s process for buying land should leave more room open to negotiation, emphasizing the possibility to acquire land below appraisal costs.

   

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