Maryland's Eastern Shore is home to 59 municipalities, each with its own government and growth priorities. But in some states, many small towns have worked together to plan as a region - an approach conservationists say Maryland should try.

Oregon passed a tough law mandating a state-controlled system of planning. It became a national model for preventing sprawl, though in recent years some property owners have railed against the restrictions. Pennsylvania, which has more than 2,500 municipalities, began a voluntary approach five years ago. Now, more than a quarter of its local governments plan regionally.

Regional planning is based on the premise that farmland, development areas and wildlife corridors don't always fit neatly into municipal borders. So planners consider issues such as transportation, farmland conservation and development across a several-county area.

More than 30 years ago, the Oregon legislature passed a law requiring every city and county to adopt land-use plans, which must be submitted to a state commission for approval. The law also created urban growth boundaries. Inside the boundaries, growth is allowed; outside, forest and farmland are to be preserved.

The law "has worked fairly well," says Mary Kyle McCurdy of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Oregon. "We don't have sprawling, leap-frogging development."

But as the Portland area became a popular destination for dissatisfied Californians in the 1990s, demand for housing grew. Some property-rights advocates railed against zoning restricting what they could build on their land. Two years ago, Oregonians approved a ballot measure that weakens the law, allowing some property owners to build if they can prove their land values went down because of a zoning change.

Pennsylvania's statute has voluntary incentives. In 1999, then-Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, signed into law Growing Greener, which he called a landmark environmental investment. The measure provided $650 million to protect farmland and parkland.

A year later, the legislature passed a companion law, Growing Smarter, which encourages municipalities to work together to plan for and control growth. The law also helps them withstand legal challenges from developers if they reject proposals.

Janet Milkman, executive director of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, says the law is similar to the Smart Growth policies that guided development in Maryland during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration. Pennsylvania towns that plan together are likely to be rewarded with grants for roads, transit and open space.

Milkman says that she would have preferred a mandatory solution. But about a quarter of the towns are now planning regionally because of the state's incentives.

"The only thing the state legislature was willing to do was encourage them to work together," she says. "But maybe, in the long run, this is the better way for implementing it."

Most states haven't been willing to try regional planning because it requires towns and counties to give up some autonomy, says Gerrit Knaap, director of the University of Maryland's smart growth center. "Nobody wants to give up their power," he says.

Under the Glendening administration, Maryland used state money to encourage development in urban areas and discourage growth elsewhere. In Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, the state largely defers to counties and towns on development issues, saying such decisions are a local prerogative.

David Goldberg, communications director for Smart Growth America, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says the Oregon model won't work everywhere. But, he says, Maryland would do well to bring back the old carrot-and-stick approach.

"I don't get the sense that Maryland has the same devotion to managing its growth that it had several years ago," he said. "But I do still think that Maryland is a leader and in many ways a pioneer in thinking about these issues."