Acting on the last day of its legislative session, Maryland lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to put state funding power behind efforts to curb sprawl development and protect farms and forests.

The "Smart Growth" initiative championed by Gov. Parris Glendening prohibits the state from paying for roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure improvements in areas unless they are specifically designated as growth areas.

"This will give us probably the strongest growth management program in the country except for Oregon," Glendening said. He added that Maryland will be the first state to use its funding to encourage local officials to direct growth to particular areas rather than try to pass laws that give state government control over zoning decisions.

Maryland is the only Bay state to enact legislation to manage growth, despite a 1988 report from a special panel appointed by the Chesapeake Executive Council that stated, "unmanaged new growth has the potential to erase any progress made in Bay improvement" and called for states to become more active in land use planning.

Sen. Brian Frosh, vice-chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Maryland delegation, was critical in securing the passage of the Smart Growth Initiative.

Sprawl development results in lost open spaces that act as buffers to protect streams and waterways. It also results in more cars traveling from farther suburbs, which creates more air pollution. Added asphalt, concrete and roofs also funnel polluted runoff into streams and rivers and, ultimately, the Bay.

The General Assembly passed a series of bills aimed at influencing both public and private decision making to concentrate new development in specific areas, redevelop old industrial sites, and to protect farms and environmentally sensitive areas.

Taken as a whole, the package is intended to slow a 50-year pattern of development that has lead to increased sprawl across the landscape. Left unchecked, current trends would lead to the loss of 500,000 more acres of farms, forests and other open spaces to development over the next 25 years, according to the state Office of Planning.

The central element of Glendening's package is the development of "Priority Funding" or "Smart Growth" areas - designations that includes all municipalities, all areas within the Washington and Baltimore beltways, and sites that have been identified as growth areas by local planning agencies and which meet certain criteria, such as density requirements and the availability of sewer systems.

The legislation generally prohibits the state from spending funds on growth related projects not located in such areas as of Oct. 1, 1998. Examples of growth-related projects are land acquisition, major transportation projects such as roads, bridges and transit, and water quality and supply projects.

Projects outside those areas can be funded only if the state Board of Public Works determines that "extraordinary circumstances" exist and there is no reasonable alternative. Projects that are required to protect public health or safety may go ahead without board permission.

Local governments could still approve developments outside Priority Funding Areas, but would have to pay for infrastructure costs on their own.

In addition, the state will steer other resources to Priority Funding Areas, such as money for industrial and small business development, housing and other programs that help revitalize older commercial and residential neighborhoods. And while the state will still finance schools outside Priority Funding Areas, it will target projects that rehabilitate existing schools to ensure that facilities in existing neighborhoods are of equal quality to new schools.

Also approved was the Rural Legacy Program, which will use money from the state's Program Open Space and through the sale of bonds to purchase land and conservation easements for farms and other areas within designated Rural Legacy Areas.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a series of "greenbelts" around urbanized areas that will protect tens of thousands of acres of forests and farms from encroaching development.

Local governments will suggest potential Rural Legacy Areas - which must be supported by the majority of landowners within the area - each year to the state Board of Public Works and a new Rural Legacy Board. Those boards will select which areas to fund based on the threat to the areas and the degree to which the proposal would succeed in protecting agriculture, forestry and natural resources.

The bills call for the Rural Legacy Program to get $4 million in Program Open Space funds in 1998, $7 million in 1999; and $9 million from 2000 to 2002. The state also is committing $35 million in bond money to the program.

A "brownfields" program was passed early in the session to spur the redevelopment of abandoned and underused industrial sites. Under the program, prospective developers for such sites will be relieved of liability for preexisting contamination if they clean up and develop the property under a plan approved by the state Department of the Environment. Developers would also get property tax credits from Baltimore and the counties and loans or grants from the state to help pay the cleanup costs.

Other measures that are part of the Smart Growth package include the Job Creation Tax Credit of 1997, which grants tax credits to businesses that create at least 25 jobs in Priority Funding Areas. Also approved was the Live Near Your Work Program, which will provide cash grants to home buyers moving into targeted communities near their workplaces.