One of my beefs with government, particularly in the state of Maryland, is that they possess much more land than they need to. Obviously there’s a need for government buildings to house the myriad agencies, departments, and other activities where the government has a legitimate reason for being, along with some parkland and recreational areas, but Maryland goes way overboard at times with its Program Open Space. In fact, POS (now is that a perfect acronym or what?) this week spent over $3 million buying 323 acres near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and purchasing the Nanticoke Inn in the town of Vienna.
While the Nanticoke Inn was purchased with an eye toward restoring it into a visitors’ center for the John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the land purchase was simply to keep it from being developed. Selling the 323 acres also fattened the coffers of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy by $2.8 million, after they previously acquired the land from various private owners. In short, that 323 acres goes off the tax rolls for both Dorchester County and the state. I’ll grant that the undeveloped land wasn’t much of a burden on services but it’s a sum of money that isn’t going to be collected anymore nonetheless. (It may be interesting to know how much the land was appraised for as well. By my calculator’s math that’s about $8,669 per acre for what I would assume is scrub and marshland.)
The news item I found tied in nicely with a Baltimore Sun article I came across last month that detailed how The Trust for Public Land is taking advantage of declining property values to buy up land along several Western Shore rivers and waterways. In essence, notes the story by Sun reporter Kevin Rector, the group acts as a holding company for plots of land until the state or federal government can come up with a fair purchase price to buy the land for themselves (and again take it off the taxation rolls.)
And where does the group get its money? Rector writes:
The nonprofit trust says it has protected 2.5 million acres in 47 states since its inception in 1972. Its funding comes largely from grants from corporations and foundations, contributions of land and money from groups and individuals, and its own investments.
Because it does not buy land speculatively, the trust is able to maintain a high level of capital that allows it to compete for real estate at market value, said Susan David, the trust’s director of public affairs. The trust reported having more than $223 million in net assets in 2007. David declined to identify properties that the trust is pursuing, saying the negotiations are confidential.
In buying all of this property and attempting to create interconnected “greenways”, the group also contributes to some of the problems one would ordinarily think it would fight against. Taking developable land away from the housing market makes remaining land that much more expensive, and while we’re not in the same boat a place like California is, housing prices still take a big bite out of the middle-class wallet here in Maryland. As much as “smart growth” utopians would like to believe Americans would like to live cheek to jowl in mid- to high-rise townhouses and apartments, the reality is that as a society we tend to desire a nice big fenced suburban yard with room for the kids to play within. Of course it makes their acquisitions more expensive as well.
The other reality is that once the state gets its hands on land, they rarely let it go. Of course, when the attempt is made environmentalists scream bloody murder, as they did in 2005 when Governor Ehrlich attempted to sell surplus state land. The General Assembly made sure that sort of deal wouldn’t happen again right quickly.
Then again, in Maryland it’s almost to the point where the state may as well purchase your land because they’re regulating to death all those things you may want to do with it anyway. But that’s a fight for another post.