Poor science guides state's policy-making


SAY THIS at least about Bob Ehrlich's increasingly worrisome record on protecting Maryland's farms, forests and parks: He never promised to be good.

When I interviewed him, running for governor a couple of years ago, two things stood out. He said he would do his darndest to clean up sewage pollution. But he had no enthusiasm for preserving land or fighting sprawl.

Now he has delivered a first-rate program to upgrade sewage treatment. But he has set the stage for what is the fifth-most densely-populated state in the nation to be consumed by sprawl development in the next few decades.

This is ironic for an administration that repeatedly says its environmental policies are guided by good science and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Protecting open space has environmental benefits - absorbing air pollution and filtering runoff - as proven and important as cutting the garbage from pipes and smokestacks. It's bad science and misuse of tax dollars to boost one while sacrificing the other.

And, of course, the rural landscape, from cornfields and clear-cuts to wilderness and wetlands, is a rich heritage with cultural, economic and spiritual benefit beyond anything in our clean-water laws.

When Ehrlich took office, Maryland led the nation in Smart Growth, a two-pronged strategy of investing to preserve the countryside while using the financial and political levers of state government to focus growth where it existed or was planned.

Begun under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Smart Growth was the most effective of the state's long history of attempts to check the sprawl that consumed about 600,000 acres of farm and forest - 12 Baltimores worth of land - from 1969 to 2000.

Across the nation, Smart Growth is alive and well. But not in Maryland. "At national conferences now, it's 'What happened to Maryland? or 'Too bad about Maryland,'" says John W. Frece, a former Glendening aide who is at the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

The legislature passed a Smart Growth law in 1997, but "the key to making it work was always leadership at the governor's level," Frece points out.

In Ehrlich's administration, even using the words "Smart Growth" is discouraged. His budgets have slashed by 75 percent the funding for Program Open Space, the state's major land-acquisition fund. The program has lost about $200 million on his watch.

He has told state agencies to identify thousands of acres of potential "surplus" lands, including parks. And the administration has twice proposed to sell or trade state parkland to facilitate development of homes and schools in St. Mary's County.

St. Mary's has some of Maryland's worst sprawl. And both parcels the administration proposed giving up there are outside the areas where officials had agreed development should be focused to preserve the countryside.

These "priority funding areas" are at the heart of Smart Growth. The state has said it won't do anything to encourage development outside them. But Ehrlich has clearly signaled that he doesn't take that promise seriously. He has failed a similar key test by proposing to expand Route 32 in Howard County.

Although much of the power over land use remains at the county level, Glendening engaged in serious and effective jawboning with local governments to force more protective zoning, even threatening or taking away some state funds. In Carroll County, this position played a significant role in ushering in a group of commissioners dedicated to reining in sprawl.

All of this has effectively ended under Ehrlich.

To be sure, he has supported elements of a Smart Growth policy - historic tax credits that encourage redevelopment in Baltimore and the cleanup of industrial brownfields so that they can be recycled instead of developing the countryside. But this is on the order of repairing windows while the house falls down.

A bigger boost to Smart Growth could come from the governor's Priority Places program, which aims to invest in development around existing communities. But the program has virtually no staff dedicated to it and virtually no budget.

Glendening felt Smart Growth could work in the long term only through a culture change in government. Decision-makers at several agencies were sent for training so that they could apply the test - "Does this action encourage or discourage sprawl?" - to everything they did. That, too, has shut down under Ehrlich.

Politically, fighting sprawl should be a winner for any Maryland governor. Perhaps a new report on sprawl, just completed by Ehrlich's Department of Planning, will be the hook for the governor to get serious about protecting our rural lands.

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