Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to abolish the state Office of Smart Growth and fold its sprawl-fighting functions into the Department of Planning, erasing one of the most visible initiatives of his immediate predecessor.
In legislation introduced this week, the Department of Planning proposed eliminating what was once a 15-person office, created in 2001 as then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening was pushing Maryland to the forefront of the national anti-sprawl movement. Planning department officials say they can accomplish those tasks at lower cost.
But environmental activists say the proposal raises fresh questions about Ehrlich's commitment to land preservation and the revitalization of older communities, which have been objectives of the land-use strategy.
"I think there's some important symbolism," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington-area advocacy group. "It downgrades the role of smart growth in the state."
Some lawmakers said they were worried about the proposal, hopeful that Maryland would not be relinquishing the leadership position that Glendening helped forge.
"I am concerned," said Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat. "We are going to have to keep an eye on this."
But Chuck Gates, spokesman for the Department of Planning, said the Ehrlich administration was not giving up on effective land-use principles.
"I can see how it might be viewed that way, but in fact there is not a reduction in emphasis or a reduction in services," Gates said. "I don't know of any other state that has a separate entity whose primary purpose was smart growth."
Gates could not say yesterday how much money would be saved through the move. Five staffers would work on Smart Growth issues, he said, compared with a high of 15 when the office was running at full capacity with positions borrowed from other agencies.
Ehrlich's decision comes a year after his administration defended the office when General Assembly analysts proposed its elimination.
"It is the one office that is charged with the task of looking out for the 'big picture' and trying to assure that what the state is doing in land use is sustainable over the long run," according to written testimony provided to legislative budget committees last year. "What we do is the tough job of being a neutral coordinator between agencies by keeping the focus on a Smart Growth outcome."
Susan Brown, head of the League of Conservation Voters, said she was "not sure if the Department of Planning will be able to do that, not being an independent coordinating body."
The office's demise was foreshadowed last spring, when several employees were fired. Since then, Ehrlich issued an executive order renaming the Smart Growth strategy as Priority Places, but details of the new program are not fully known, Brown and others say.
"The real loss is the people that they just willy-nilly fired," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, head of 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "They were some of the best and the brightest in the country to be working on these issues. That loss of resources is what is important here."