By David J. Silverman, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS- Environmental leaders joined forces Tuesday to demand that Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley follow through on his campaign promise to fully fund the state's primary land conservation program.
Even though O'Malley is expected to inherit a large budget deficit, the incoming governor should not raid Program Open Space dollars to balance the budget, they said.
"We're facing severe fiscal times...and that means tough choices," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, staff attorney for Environment Maryland. "No matter where [O'Malley's] intentions lie, he's going to have to make a very tough decision about what gets funded and what doesn't."
The remarks came at a press conference at which Environment Maryland issued a report showing the urgent need for land conservation funding.
Speakers sounded optimistic about the new governor.
"After years of not having a seat at the table fighting pro-developer pro-sprawl policies, Maryland LCV and environmental community look forward to having partners in the State House and in the governor's office," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation voters. "We know that they will work to protect lands and meet the growth challenges that we face."
O'Malley won broad support from environmentalists during his campaign in part because he vowed to use all Open Space dollars for the program's intended purpose of purchasing land and parks.
Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said that despite a budget shortfall which could be as much as $400 to $500 million, the governor remains "committed to fully funding Program Open Space."
The fund for Program Open Space draws its money from the real estate transfer tax and, according to Partners for Open Space, has protected more than 800,000 acres of land from development.
But under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's direction, Maryland siphoned off more than $480 million in dedicated funds to balance the budget, according to Environment Maryland.
"During that time, land conservation pretty much ground to a halt," said Marcia Verploegen Lewis, campaign director of Partners for Open Space.
The report highlighted seven places throughout Maryland that are increasingly imperiled by development.
The locations included Prettyboy Reservoir, which is among the reservoirs that supply drinking water to 1.8 million people in the Baltimore region; Annapolis Neck, undeveloped property near the bay; Terrapin Run, a proposed development near Alleghany County's Green Ridge State Forest; the Eastern Shore's Assawoman Bay and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, both areas of vibrant wildlife; and Cayots Corner and the Patuxent River Rural Legacy Area, farming districts in Cecil County and Prince George's County, respectively.
Bevan-Dangel said Environment Maryland selected the seven diverse areas in large part to show that "sprawl isn't something that just represents central Maryland anymore."
"The locations are important not only for ecological reasons but for heritage and quality of life," she said. "These are seven classic examples of poorly planned growth decisions."
Bevan-Dangel and others called on Maryland to direct development to already developed areas that have the necessary infrastructure to sustain growth.
Terry Cummings, Maryland grassroots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called for the creation of regional authorities to oversee development and land use planning at the local level. "It's really a choice about whether we want to live in a rational, sane way, or be content with overcrowded schools, clogged roads, fewer and fewer farms, less open space, a degraded environment and a very sick bay," he said.