By Megan Poinski
The state’s Program Open Space has a new home agency and more flexibility with how funds can be spent.
With funds from real estate transfer taxes, which have been down recently, the program allocates money to buy land and conserve open space. This land can be used to preserve a natural habitat, but it can also be used for parks or other recreational areas.
The program used to be split between the Department of General Services, the Department of Planning, and the Department of Natural Resources. Now, in a move proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley and unanimously supported by the General Assembly, all of its functions will be carried out by Natural Resources. Emily Wilson, the acting director for land acquisition and planning at DNR, said that this move is just consolidating the program.
“From common sense and efficiency, it makes sense,” Wilson said.
No more divided responsibility
Before the new law took effect, the Department of General Services acted as the real estate agent for Open Space-related land sales. Natural Resources did the “front end” work, finding land to be acquired that best suited the needs of the program. Once Natural Resources found the land that they wanted to acquire, General Services would actually purchase it.
“Now it will be a one-stop shop,” she said. “It will make it potentially less confusing for folks inquiring about the status of projects. They will know where to go.”
Natural Resources also now has responsibility for preparing the state’s overall Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan, according to the new law.
Wilson said the Department of Natural Resources will be getting five employees from the Department of General Services to facilitate the change. The Attorney General’s Office will also get one of DGS’ employees. No new positions are being created.
Another change to Program Open Space came this summer as the result of a bill passed during the legislative session. As long as they have met their land acquisition guidelines, counties and local jurisdictions are once again able to use all of their Program Open Space money for development projects.
Counties can use all the funding for development
Prior to the new law, which unanimously passed the Senate and the House of Delegates and was signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in May, only 75% of Open Space allocations could be used on development. The new law re-institutes an older policy that was allowed to expire.
Proposed by Sen. George Edwards, R-Allegany and Garrett Counties, the change allows for counties to use the entire allocation for development projects once they have met their land goals. It cannot be used on new projects.
At the February hearing on the legislation, Edwards explained that some large projects – like installing lights at a public stadium – are difficult for governments to fund.
Rick Towle, director of parks and recreation for Talbot County, testified at the hearing and agreed. Making all of the funds available for development will help counties have flexibility to better serve their residents.
“We’re trying to take what we do have available as a resource and maximize it as it is available while we wait for it (the economy) to come around.”
Kelly Carneal, director of Partners for Open Space, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups, said that the new legislation simply increases the money that can be spent on adding to existing developments, and goes right along with the goals of the program.
“The goals are land acquisition, improving facilities, and access,” she said. “This fits in that set of goals.”
Despite the changes in the law, Program Open Space was able to get nearly $37 million in funding for fiscal year 2012. However, some of the funding just replaced money that was “borrowed” from the program last year, and replaced with bonds.
One program that got no new money — just the “borrowed” amount paid back — was Rural Legacy. This program under Open Space is designed to preserve farms and forests in rural areas of the state.
In late 2009, program directors feared that the program would not meet its goals.
Wilson said that despite the lack of money, the program is 80% of the way to achieving its preservation goals by 2022.
“It’s not 100%, but it’s also not 2022,” she said. “The state just needs to continue funding the program.”