Howard's Ken Ulman is a Democrat and Anne Arundel's John R. Leopold is a Republican, but on environmental issues these days, it may be hard to see much difference between the two county executives.
Since taking office in December, Ulman has proposed a laundry list of anti-global warming initiatives, from a carbon emissions study and the purchase of 25 hybrid county vehicles to giving tax breaks to developers and residents who go green. He screened former Vice President Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth for his entire administration in April.
As Anne Arundel's new county executive, Leopold is aggressively pushing environmental land-use issues, including cracking down on illegal waterfront development to protect the Chesapeake Bay. He's also spending $6.1 million to buy and preserve a key 30-acre parcel in the southern county once slated for a big-box shopping center, and personally intervened to keep a Wal-Mart out of Crofton. He has promised to convert the 857-acre former Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills to a botanical garden - using solar power to provide energy.
Leopold and Ulman were also the two first county executives in Maryland to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement promoting a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Leopold signed it in January and Ulman in February.
"No matter what party you are in, this planet is still pretty important to us," Ulman said. "I think we're both in jurisdictions that have tremendous land-use pressures, and we're both interested in protecting the quality of life."
Leopold said he's a Republican in the century-old tradition of President Theodore Roosevelt.
"I'm a fiscal conservative, but at the same time, I recognize the importance of the environment to help save this planet," he said.
"Land preservation is directly related to restoring the health of the bay and its tributaries," Leopold said. "An Inconvenient Truth, I think, struck a responsive chord throughout the country for Republicans, Democrats and independents."
Leaders in other counties, such as veteran Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., are also doing more on environmental issues, but with less fanfare.
The Smith administration has quietly purchased a half-dozen hybrid cars as a pilot project to see if they'll save money. In addition, the Baltimore County Council approved last year a bill allotting up to $5 million in property tax credits for developers who build certified energy-efficient green commercial buildings. Harford County has 17 hybrids spread throughout the government fleet, with two more on order, said Charles Clark, purchasing agent.
The common denominator for Ulman and Leopold might be the pressures of growth, according to Herbert Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.
"Getting on the right side of that one is just pure survival," Smith said.
Ulman's interest in things such as solar power and hybrids is more traditionally Democratic, according to Smith, but "being seen in the pocket of developers or arrayed with dumb growth has defeated incumbents of both parties."
Some call it the Al Gore Effect, but for whatever reason, it is clear things are changing, environmentalists said.
"I think we're seeing a definite trend toward local environmental awareness, broadly. In Maryland, the Republicans have been less involved, but I think they're changing," said Mike Martin, chairman of the Sierra Club of Maryland's executive committee.
Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, agreed.
"For years we've been talking about the environment being a bipartisan issue," he said. Now, he said, maybe that idea is spreading.
Ulman said he's getting friendly feedback, even from Republicans. "I'm sensing acceptance is much broader," he said.
"What I'm proud of is, in a very short period of time, we [the Ulman administration] have moved the county dramatically forward."
This month, Ulman announced a legislative package that would give commercial developers up to 75 percent off their property taxes for using energy-saving techniques to construct "green" buildings. Another bill would put 100 building permits in a pool available for residential developers who use "green neighborhood" techniques outdoors to reduce water runoff and benefit the environment. A third bill would require new county buildings to meet standards set out by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
In his budget, Ulman had nine environmental initiatives costing $3.8 million. The largest item is $2.3 million to design a new county nature center intended to become a showcase of green technology.
There is $400,000 for the hybrid vehicles, $100,000 for a pilot solar energy project at county buildings, $200,000 for preservation easements on small parcels in older neighborhoods, $280,000 for 65-gallon wheeled recycling bins, and $100,000 to study the county's carbon dioxide production.
Another, cost-neutral project would use methane gas from the county landfill for energy - something Baltimore City officials are doing on a larger scale. And Ulman has offered county money to pay for new hybrid Howard Transit buses.