January 23, 2003

FOR THOSE concerned about the rapacious spread of development across Maryland's remaining open land, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s initial actions in office are sending mixed signals.

To the surprise of some Smart Growth advocates - who feared the new governor would immediately dismantle his predecessor's signature program - Mr. Ehrlich's first operating budget proposal, released last week, retains funding for the Governor's Office of Smart Growth.

At the same time, Mr. Ehrlich's proposed capital budget, to be released today, reduces this fiscal year's funding for some of Maryland's vaunted land preservation programs and cuts funds for other such programs next fiscal year.

The new governor's aides caution not to read much into these and similar decisions. The budget numbers didn't stem from a policy review of Smart Growth. And given the state's budget crisis, the timeline for that could stretch out a year or more.

That's left Smart Growth advocates grateful but worried. They're nervous that, having been put on hold during Governor Ehrlich's start-up, the question of how best to sustain, or even accelerate, Maryland's sprawl-control efforts will go begging.

Meanwhile, time matters: With each passing day, development chews up the state, particularly in central Maryland, which is on pace for a 50 percent increase in its developed acreage over the next 20 years or so.

The issue affects most every Maryland resident, isn't going away, and is hardly partisan. The governor should take a look at Massachusetts, where incoming Republican Gov. Mitt Romney made fighting sprawl the centerpiece of his new administration and named an ardent environmentalist as the state's chief development officer. Or perhaps more to the point, New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey succeeded a very strong smart-growth innovator, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, and took a year before embracing much the same stance.

Mr. Ehrlich's aides say their main Smart Growth question is not "if," but "how" - how to make it work better and more respectfully toward local control of land use. Another way to put that: how to recast Smart Growth with his stamp on it.

One idea that would help the new administration resolve how it wants to curb sprawl - while losing as little time, and land, as possible in the process - is forming a broad-based state task force to evaluate smart growth. That's being proposed by the "Smart Growth Collaborative," more than 40 builders, officials and environmentalists who've been meeting informally since last fall to try to find common ground in the fight against sprawl.

The group will present this and its other recommendations on extending Smart Growth to Governor Ehrlich's transition team next week. The new administration ought to consider it much-needed help - in figuring out as expeditiously as possible the next step in Smart Growth's evolution.

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