Nation & World

Judging the candidates

This is the second column on how gubernatorial candidates Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend measure up on the environment.

Smart Growth

How a governor handles this affects in the long term the whole environmental, economic and social spectrum.

Air and water quality, open space, traffic congestion, urban revitalization, local tax bases - all are harmed by the sprawl development that affects 128,000 acres annually across Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Maryland, in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's last term, has become a leader in Smart Growth, spending big to preserve the countryside while refocusing budgets for schools, roads and sewers to steer growth toward existing and planned communities.

But changing the ingrained culture of haphazard, developer-driven land use has only begun. Zoning power remains at the county level, and recent analyses show most still allow far too much sprawl.

Land-use watchdog groups such as 1000 Friends of Maryland say it's essential to continue Glendening's strong posture to keep the counties from backsliding. He canceled sprawl-prone road projects, threatened Carroll County's commissioners with loss of state funds when they tried to weaken agricultural zoning, and jawboned other counties to legislate better land use.

In a nutshell, Townsend, a Democrat, says she would continue in that vein, and Ehrlich, a Republican, gives every indication he wouldn't.

"Conceptually, Smart Growth makes sense, focusing state resources on existing developed areas, on redeveloping brownfields [abandoned industrial areas]," Ehrlich says. "But am I willing to pre-empt in a major way local zoning decisions? No. If I thought a local plan was ridiculously anti-Smart Growth, I'd sit down with those officials."

He faulted Glendening for creating unnecessary "antagonism," and said he would not have intervened in Carroll County. The dust-up over weakening open-space zoning was instigated by Ehrlich's close friend, developer Ed Primoff.


Runoff of fertilizers and manure from farmland is one of the largest sources of bay pollution. Fifteen years of voluntary prevention have made little progress. Promising approaches exist, but farmers will need financial assistance and firm guidelines to do them.

Both candidates say they support Maryland's recent law that attempts to check agricultural pollution in a regulatory way, though Ehrlich indicates he favors voluntary, incentive-based approaches wherever possible.

Both candidates to date have spent more energy on reassuring farmers than on how they'll actually deal with the long-standing and intractable problems of runoff.

Open space

Both candidates said that in order to close budget deficits they'll continue the deplorable tradition of raiding tens of millions of dollars from Program Open Space (POS), a major funding source on the rural preservation side of Smart Growth.

The faster Maryland develops, the faster money for preserving land from development is supposed to flow to POS, from a tax on real estate transfers.

Townsend says she'll try to make up the difference of whatever she takes with bonds, while Ehrlich promises "to work" to restore POS to full funding someday.

Both candidates say they'll scrutinize new road projects to make sure they don't cause unnecessary sprawl development. But Ehrlich also says he'd consider building a far northern (Frederick County) route to a bypass around the Capital Beltway, which would induce lots of sprawl.

Voting records

Townsend has none, though she points to serving on the national board of the Wilderness Society, writing her law review article on the Clean Water Act, and a year or so working as a state water quality lawyer.

Ehrlich's votes span 16 years as a Maryland legislator and congressman, and are one reason environmental groups like the Maryland League of Conservation Voters have endorsed Townsend.

In the legislature, Ehrlich averaged 36 percent in favor of environmental issues, as scored by the nonpartisan League - well below average for the House of Delegates. In Congress, he's averaged 26 percent, compared with a Maryland delegation average of 65 percent. Last year, his 21 percent was the worst of the state's 10-member delegation.

Ehrlich argues he's voted often for the bay and the environment. Indeed, he has at times supported issues as diverse as Maryland's pioneering tree protection act, more money for upgrading sewage treatment, conservation help for farmers; and he opposed a 1995 bill to weaken water quality protection.

But his overall pattern remains poor enough that his own spokesman, Paul E. Schurick, says: "I won't lie to you. Bob's never been green and he never will be green. ... He'll be balanced."

"Bob's not an ideologue, not driven by [anti-environmental] dogma like Sauerbrey [Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican candidate for governor in 1994 and 1998]," says Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Ehrlich supporter whose strong environmental views once won the Sierra Club's endorsement.

"With Glendening and Townsend, it's been eight years of not even getting my phone calls returned," Gilchrest said. "Bobby would be plugged into the [Bush] administration, and we could get so much done environmentally in the next eight years."

Looking back at three governors I've covered, it seems Maryland's chief executives have needed on-the-job education about the environment.

Harry Hughes came in with scarcely a clue, and left the hero of Chesapeake Bay. William Donald Schaefer came on like he would wipe out the then-endangered striped bass, and left with a credible record on environment. Even Glendening, who planned an environmental agenda from the start, stumbled for a couple years before finding his stride.

The real issue for bay advocates isn't convincing voters that Ehrlich's weak on the environment. They already agree. By almost 2-to-1 in a Sun poll, voters said Townsend would take better care of it.

What should concern environmentalists is how little this big margin for Townsend translates into how people plan to vote - split almost evenly between Democrat and Republican.