David A. C. Carroll, secretary of the state Department of the Environment, is fond of recounting how a company had planned on spending three days slogging through the department's regulatory morass to only to find it took four hours to accomplish what they needed.

"They were flabbergasted," he said.

Mr. Carroll hopes there will be more flabbergasted companies with the opening of a one-stop permit center, scheduled to be formally christened today by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, that incorporates the approach that proved so surprising.

Dubbed the Environmental Permits Service Center, the six-person operation at the department's East Baltimore headquarters is expected to streamline the permit process by acting as a tour guide for companies -- telling them what they need and where to go. And then for good measure, the center will track the progress of applications and possibly prod any slow bureaucrats.

The center, on the second floor of the department's headquarters at 2500 Broening Highway, is the latest effort by the department to simplify a regulatory system that businesses have complained is cumbersome and time consuming.

"Our general philosophy here is that we need to be constantly looking at ways of providing service to our community and our clients," Mr. Carroll said.

The center also fits in nicely with the policies of the apparent winner of the gubernatorial race, Parris Glendening, who advocates one-stop business permitting centers as a way to attract companies to Maryland.

"We had done something like that in Prince George's County," Mr. Glendening said at a press conference in College Park yesterday. "Where possible we must simplify the permit process. It's too duplicative, too overlapping," he said.

For the last year the department has coordinated efforts among different permit divisions -- called a team effort -- to shepard through permits for big, high-profile companies.

The approach -- which is embodied in the new center -- was instrumental in convincing W. R. Grace & Co., a giant chemical and medical products company, to build a $38.5 million chemical plant at its Davison complex in Curtis Bay. Company officials estimated a year was cut off the normal time to get permits.

Now this system will be available to any company -- regardless of size -- seeking new or renewed permits in 11 different areas, including air, water, sewage and hazardous substances.

These permits, which are needed when companies build new operations or restart old ones, can take days to issue -- as in the case of a dry cleaning establishment -- to more than a year for a large chemi cal plant.

Time savings will vary with the permits requested, Mr. Carroll said. Companies seeking routine permits might get approvals in one day. Far more complex cases could see months shaved off the process, he said.

Besides speeding up the process for business, the new center also should promote earlier public participation since companies will be immediately referred to appropriate community and environmental groups.

While both environmental and business representatives applaud the goals of the new center, they are waiting to see how it works.

"Maryland is known as being very slow in environmental permits compared to other states," said Carolyn T. Burridge, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Mary land.

While companies like Grace praise the department's efforts, Ms. Burridge said other companies, which she would not identify, say they are still experiencing long delays. "They've been waiting 18 months, and they are still waiting," she said.

But the center is a step in the right direction, she said. "They have at least acknowledged they have a problem and they're trying to do something to improve."

Environmental groups say the new center will help them keep track of permitting activity, which now is widely dispersed through the agency's block-long headquarters on Broening Highway.

"It should help," said Mary M. Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition. "It should not interfer with the mandated process of a public hearing."

But Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action, said there were some "bruised feelings" because environmental groups were only told of the new center in late October and had no input into its formation. "We weren't invited in before it was a done deal," she said.

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