The green agenda

The Baltimore Sun

It's become fashionable for politicians to talk green these days, but Gov. Martin O'Malley has generally shown a willingness to back it up with money and policy initiatives. Despite the recession, he was at it again during last week's State of the State address.

But if his aim is to protect the Chesapeake Bay, it's become apparent he's not yet willing to go far enough - at least not if it threatens how local governments make development decisions.

What does the governor do right? First, there's his decision to fully fund Program Open Space next year. That shouldn't seem extraordinary (the longtime land conservation program is financed by a tax on land transfers, after all). But his predecessor's willingness to use it as kind of overdraft protection for the state's general fund budget was one of the larger mistakes of recent years.

How much open space was lost as a result of the budgetary plundering? It's hard to say, but in two years of leaving the program untouched, nearly 21,000 acres have been protected - more than five times what was achieved during the same period when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor.

Next there's Mr. O'Malley's effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Last year, we opposed a similar effort because it might have cost the state vital manufacturing jobs, particularly at Sparrows Point. That concern has been addressed in this year's version, and if the legislature approves it, Maryland will set some of the most ambitious climate change goals in the nation.

Given the seriousness of the threat and coastal Maryland's vulnerability to rising sea levels, that makes a lot of sense.

But where the governor stumbles is in toughening standards for land use. Though he noted that development has a big effect on the Chesapeake, the "natural soul of our state," his proposals aren't likely to reverse local governments' continued failure to prevent sprawl and direct growth toward urban centers.

Maryland needs to do a better job of gathering data, updating "visions" for its Smart Growth program and making sure local comprehensive plans are relevant in legal proceedings - all of which the governor has proposed doing. But what's needed even more is a reasonable way to steer counties and towns in a responsible direction. It's not just a matter of setting statewide benchmarks, but enforcing them, too. Such accountability is precisely what the existing Smart Growth program lacks.

That's an approach likely to make the former Baltimore mayor less popular at Maryland Association of Counties meetings, but it embellishes his credentials as the Chesapeake Bay's most valuable State House ally since Harry R. Hughes. Taxpayer dollars are too precious to waste on accommodating development that destroys wetlands, endangers threatened species or otherwise degrades our air, land and water.

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