Ballot Question One: For or Against? Dyson and McKay at Odds - Southern Maryland Headline News

Ballot Question One: For or Against? Dyson and McKay at Odds

Dyson and McKay Diametrically Opposed on Question One

By David Noss

Almost every election we find one or more questions on the ballot that we need to vote on. If you're like most people, you may find it hard to understand the issue that is buried in all the legal mumbo jumbo.

On Tuesday you'll find four questions on the ballot.

Question One asks whether or not we should take away the constitutionally mandated authority of the Board of Public Works (BPW) and give it to the legislature regarding the sale of state-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest, or park land.

Those in favor say it will prevent political abuse by the Governor—the BPW comprises the Governor, the Comptroller, and the Treasurer.

One proponent, and co-sponsor of the Senate Bill that paved the way for the amendment, is State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29). Delegate John Bohanan (D-29B) and the Democratic Candidate for State Comptroller, Peter Franchot, also support the measure.

“If it’s not nailed down, they’ll look at it for sale,” said Franchot.

Those opposed say it will take the authority away from an executive committee that can best weigh the facts when making a decision and give it to the politically motivated legislature—a move that will give more power to Baltimore and Montgomery counties who can trump decisions that might favor southern Maryland.

One opponent of the bill is Dyson’s opponent and candidate for State Senator of District 29, Thomas McKay. “The smaller counties don’t have the same level of representation as the bigger counties,” said McKay. “Of 141 Delegates we have 3, and we have 1 Senator out of 47. 184 people that we don’t vote for will be making decisions about what happens in St. Mary’s County. It’s not the way to do this.”

Although Delegate Anthony O'Donnell (R-29C) says he supported the measure in the House and believes it will pass, he agrees with McKay’s assessment about the shift in decision making power. “The Legislature has demonstrated lack of constraint in partisan enactments,” said O'Donnell. “Last year it passed two unconstitutional and one illegal bill—all three struck down by the court.”

The BPW was established by the Maryland Constitution of 1864. “The Board of Public Works ensures that significant State expenditures are necessary and appropriate, fiscally responsible, fair, and lawful,” states the BPW website. “In reviewing and approving capital projects, procurement contracts, and the acquisition, use, and transfer of State assets, the Board assures Marylanders that executive decisions are made responsibly and responsively.”

Question One is reportedly designed to prevent future occurrences of what has become known as, “The Hackerman Deal.” The incident—which gained state-wide attention—involved the sale of 836 acres of forest lands known as the Salem Tract, located in St. Mary’s County near the St. Mary’s River State Park, by the Ehrlich Administration to a construction executive named Willard Hackerman.

Hackerman is the Chief Executive at the Whiting-Turner Construction Company based in Baltimore. The company does business on a national level and is one of the largest contracting companies for commercial and institutional building construction. According to McKay, Whiting-Turner never did a residential development project prior to the proposed land sale.

The proposed deal involved having the state purchase the 836 acres and then immediately resell it to an unspecified “benefactor” for close to the state’s purchase price. The benefactor was Hackerman and it was this initial secrecy that raised many eyebrows.

According to McKay, the plan was to sell the property to Hackerman who would in turn immediately donate 200 acres to be used for a school site for the County. Hackerman would then hold the remainder of the land for two years at which point he would donate the development rights to the government. Once the rights had been retired, the land could not be developed. According to a statement released by Hackerman in 2004, he did plan to develop a few farmettes on 50 acres of the land.

In addition to being able to develop 50 acres of the 836 acres for small farms for his family, the benefit to Hackerman was that after the two year holding period, he would have been able to take a federal tax credit for the difference in the current market value and the price he paid for it. The rapidly increasing property values in St. Mary’s County were another aspect of the deal that drew attention.

The deal eventually fell apart after the Baltimore Sun broke the story due to political pressure.

“This literally set us back 2 years in looking for schools sites,” said Delegate John Bohanan. “The belief was that the governor was going to come in and solve your school site problem … Because of that, we sort of halted all efforts to go out and do it the old fashioned way—that was find some school sites and maybe have to buy them. We were waiting for some free deal from this.”

“[The failure of this deal to go through] will go down in history as the worst, most damaging, and costly deal to the citizens of St. Mary’s County,” said McKay. “Now they must pay to have the land stand and pay $20-25,000,000 for 200 acres of land for a school site.”

On Tuesday, October 24, McKay’s opponent, Senator Roy Dyson, gathered with Delegate John Bohanan and the Democratic Candidate for State Comptroller Peter Franchot at the site of the Salem Tract to argue in favor of Question One. They were joined by representatives from the Sierra Club as well as the local activists, Linda Vallandingham and Robert Jarboe, who worked diligently to put an end to the sale.

Dyson was one of forty-three co-sponsors of the 2005 Senate Bill 102 which paved the way for the Ballot Measure. Franchot worked in the House of Delegates to pass the House version.

Dyson’s contingent, the Sierra Club representatives, and the local activists all stressed in harmony how important the preservation of land is to the health of the St. Mary’s River, the lake at the State Park, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

McKay argues that most of the land in St. Mary’s County is critical in that it is located in one watershed or another. “St. Mary’s needs a school site and it will be in a watershed,” he said.

McKay added that there currently is no storm water management plan for the Salem Tract property. A plan would help control erosion and runoff into the St. Mary’s river. McKay cited statistics that concluded more topsoil erodes from acreage that has no management plan than from agricultural lands. He also added that remainder of the land that Hackerman was going to donate beyond the 200 acres for the school site could have been developed into a recreational area had a storm water management plan been developed.

Dr. Robert Paul, an Ecologist with the St. Mary’s College of Maryland, works on the St. Mary’s River Project. The project monitors the water quality of the tidal and non-tidal portions of the river. He said that from an ecologist’s perspective, the preferred plan is to leave any undeveloped land undisturbed. Failing that option, the next best thing is to have well planned development that includes a storm water management plan.

While many news reports refer to the Salem Tract as “environmentally sensitive” and politicians call it “pristine forest,” few ever describe the land adequately. A brief walk down the coarse, dirt access road into the property tells a different story. The land is saturated with crowded pines and one quickly notes that the parcel has been clear-cut at least once. Vallandingham recalls that it was last timbered approximately fifteen years ago. McKay added that, to the best of his knowledge, the property has been timbered for at least the last 100 years.

Just to the left of the property, where the Arrowhead development now sits, are examples of the true indigenous forests of St. Mary’s County—stately hardwoods such as oaks and maples with low lying holly trees. The Salem Tract is further scarred by ruts left by logging equipment and a wide right-of-way for high tension power transmission lines.

Paul commented that if left alone, the land would eventually “heal itself” and no longer present a danger to the river and its marine life.

At last Tuesday’s grand opening of the Port of Leonardtown project, McKay also seized on the opportunity to speak against Question One. He argued that if the amendment passed, it would prevent future positive works like the Port of Leonardtown project. The land on which the Port of Leonardtown sits was once a State Highway Administration maintenance facility.

Then Maryland Comptroller Bobby Swann worked with the town and the county to sell the property for the $14,000 price originally paid by the state. Mayor Norris noted that without Swann’s help, the property would likely be a truck depot today. As Comptroller, Swann was one of the three key decision makers on the BPW who ultimately approved the deal.

Summary of Question One Prepared by the Department of Legislative Services of the Maryland General Assembly

Board of Public Works - Disposition of Public Park Lands - General Assembly Approval Required

Amends Section 3 of Article XII - Public Works of the Maryland Constitution to prohibit the Board of Public Works from approving the sale, transfer, exchange, grant, or other permanent disposition of any State-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest, or park land without the express approval of the General Assembly, or of a committee that the General Assembly designates by statute, resolution, or rule.

Current law provides for an extensive process with respect to the disposition of excess State-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, park, or forest lands. This process includes the determination of excess State-owned property, the declaration of such property as excess, as well as notification to specified entities. For certain property, the process may also include public hearings and final approval of the disposition by the General Assembly.

This constitutional amendment proposes an amendment to Section 3 of Article XII to expressly prohibit the Board of Public Works from approving the disposition of specified Stateowned land without the specific approval of the General Assembly or of a committee that the General Assembly designates by statute, resolution, or rule.

During the 2005 session, the General Assembly also passed companion legislation (Chapter 473) to make the changes to statutory law necessary to implement this constitutional amendment. That legislation requires notification of proposed dispositions to be made to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee of the General Assembly. In addition, for certain properties, dispositions must be approved by the Legislative Policy Committee or the full General Assembly.

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