MARYLAND'S nationally acclaimed Smart Growth program, the state's major strategy for reining in sprawl development, has lost its momentum in the first six months of the Ehrlich administration.
The Governor's Office of Smart Growth, which oversees and promotes anti-sprawl strategies throughout state government, has received "no direction at all" for months, according to John Frece, its acting director.
"Absolute silence; ... we've heard nothing at all since the election," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to Smart Growth.
She was an organizer last fall of a Smart Growth Policy Collaborative, in which 40 leaders from the homebuilding, development, farming and environmental communities put together a set of recommendations for the next governor.
"We're still waiting to discuss it," Schmidt-Perkins said.
"I see no sense of commitment," said Lee Epstein, head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Lands Program. "They are letting the governor's Smart Growth office fall apart."
The office has lost most of its top people, including director Harriet Tregoning, considered one of the nation's leading Smart Growth spokespeople.
Tregoning's salary slot, but not her leadership post, has gone to Lynn Y. Buhl, Ehrlich's pick for secretary of environment, who failed to get confirmation from the legislature. Buhl, assigned to the state Department of Planning, says she is working to redevelop abandoned industrial sites, or brownfields, and to find federal money for better sewage treatment.
Tregoning, who resigned in February, says that Ehrlich, a Republican, should be expected to pursue Smart Growth differently than his Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening.
"But there are any number of directions he can go -- revitalization of older communities, infill development and redevelopment of existing urban areas and towns, historic preservation, recycling of brownfields," she said.
All these help fight sprawl development by focusing growth, and "fit with what he said in his campaign he'd like to do," Tregoning said.
She said tight budgets will make it harder to pursue the land programs that Glendening used to protect large tracts of countryside from the sprawl that consumes tens of thousands of acres a year.
"But Smart Growth is also about fiscal efficiency: more economic activity, more jobs, more people, all on less land with less infrastructure costs," she noted.
Another sign that Smart Growth is losing its prominence is the administration's firing of key people in agencies throughout state government.
They include Shari Wilson at the Maryland Department of Environment, who made sure the agency's regulations, spending and cleanup policies were consistent with promoting growth where it would not cause sprawl. Her job was eliminated.
Then there was Ellen Janes, who worked at the Department of Housing and Community Development to revitalize existing neighborhoods. She returned from being honored at the recent reopening of Baltimore's Belvedere Square to find a pink slip at her desk.
Another was Lauren Wenzel at the Department of Natural Resources who had developed highly regarded curriculum materials on Smart Growth for schools around the state.
Such is the fear and loathing at DNR that in Wenzel's old section, "Smart Growth" was removed from the Web site logo.
No one thinks the Ehrlich administration is deliberately singling out Smart Growth -- they are firing lots of people for lots of reasons. But as Schmidt-Perkins says, "The institutional loss of Smart Growth experience is huge."
It's early yet to say the governor won't find his way on Smart Growth. His Department of Planning, a key agency in fighting sprawl, is committed to the concept, officials say. "Everything we do here every day, every way, is Smart Growth," says Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott.
Smart Growth became state law in 1997. This requires the state to focus its spending and projects, from roads and sewers to low-income mortgage lending, to encourage development around existing towns, away from the countryside.
But there is ample room for slippage here through exceptions and exemptions and simple lack of oversight. And nothing in the law binds Maryland's counties, where most of the land-use powers, such as zoning, reside.
Recent studies have shown most counties continue allowing far too much development outside of the areas where Smart Growth would steer it. While the Office of Smart Growth can't be abolished without legislative consent, it's clear the administration plans to fold it into the planning department in all but name.
That would be a big mistake. Harry R. Hughes, governor during the 1980s, tried giving the planning department a similar mission, making sure all other agencies coordinated policies affecting the Chesapeake Bay.
It failed because planning was and is one agency among many, with no real authority over the others. That is why the Smart Growth office was set up to report directly to the governor's office, with unique ability to oversee and coordinate other state agencies for Smart Growth.
Make no mistake, Smart Growth is a fundamental change in the way we use land, benefiting everything from air and water quality to wildlife habitat, traffic congestion and local tax bases.
Making it the true culture of Maryland, reversing decades of developer-driven sprawl, will take continued high-profile, high-level commitment.
Right now that is hard to see.