While Maryland’s 1997 Smart Growth initiatives represent a “milestone” in managing land use and curtailing sprawl, environmentalists say counties need to do a better job of directing where growth takes place, and that state agencies should steer their spending toward those areas.

“Certainly, the program here in Maryland deserves the national attention it is getting,” said Theresa Pierno, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director. “But it has a ways to go before it realizes its full potential.”

The foundation and 1000 Friends of Maryland in October released a report on the state’s program, “Making Smart Growth Smarter,” which highlighted areas that need to be improved if the program is to effectively rein in sprawl.

“The efforts to date will not solve the problem,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. “We must do more.”

Gov. Parris Glendening, who spoke at the conference where the report was released, said he agreed with many of the findings and said he would back legislation next year to bolster the program.

The state’s Smart Growth initiative stems from 1997 legislation that sought to steer state infrastructure money — funding for roads, sewers and schools — toward county-designated growth areas.

The legislation and accompanying executive orders by Glendening provided funds to revitalize urban areas and required state agencies to consider impacts on land use when funding projects. If counties approve projects outside designated growth areas which require roads, sewers or other infrastructure, they — or the builders — are supposed to foot 100 percent of the bill.

As part of the legislative package, the state launched the Rural Legacy Program, which makes millions of dollars available each year to protect open spaces.

But an overriding concern the report highlighted, both at the county and state level, was the lack of opportunity for public input. Schmidt-Perkins described opportunities for citizen involvement as “almost totally lacking.” For the program to be effective, she said, people needed to be involved from the beginning of the planning process.

The report found several other areas where the Smart Growth program could be improved. While counties are required to designate growth areas where development — and funding — would be steered, the study found counties using widely different techniques to determine just how much land was needed for future development. As a result, some established areas much larger than what was likely to be needed.

Beyond setting designated growth areas, the report found that many counties had not integrated other policies with Smart Growth plans. In some cases, infrastructure plans for sewer and water service do not match those designated as growth areas; one county had sewer service plans 20 times greater than what was needed for expected future growth. Such plans, the report said, can lead to oversized growth areas and don’t help to guide development as effectively as they could, the report said.

In addition, many counties had not changed zoning and other requirements that allow for more efficient growth patterns. Requirements for minimum lot sizes, building setbacks, road and parking standards and other local regulatory requirements cause development to be spread over more area than is needed.

Counties also need to work together in the planning process, they said. In some cases, the designated growth area in one county borders the rural legacy preservation areas in the neighboring county.

The report concluded that the state needed to provide better guidelines for how to efficiently use land within growth areas, and to develop model codes and regulations counties could adopt to promote more compact development patterns. The state should also provide incentives for counties to work together in planning efforts, the report said.

Also at the state level, the report found that while state agencies are supposed to steer infrastructure spending toward Smart Growth areas, most did not have procedures or guidelines for doing that. In some cases, such as transportation, the report said agency spending priorities needed a “fundamental reordering” to support smart growth.

Glendening proclaimed the report “fair and constructive” and said the Smart Growth legislation was “a beginning, not an end.”

Glendening said some issues highlighted by the report— such as reordering state spending practices, especially for transportation — are already being addressed, citing his recent cancellation of a proposed Intercounty Connector in the Washington, D.C. suburbs as an example. “We can no longer simply continue to spend our way out of highway congestion problems,” he said.

In addition, Glendening said he would soon announce several new initiatives that address some concerns raised by the report.

He said the state was developing a “smart codes” program that would make it easier to reuse older buildings and reinvest in older communities. He agreed that existing setback requirements requiring buildings or homes to be certain distances from roads, prohibitions for living above businesses and other requirements make it impossible to recreate urban environments like those in Annapolis, Frederick or Ellicott City.

“You could not build today, an Annapolis, one of our most charming communities where people want to live today,” he said.

In addition, he said that in next year’s budget he would propose increasing spending for the popular Rural Legacy Program — another recommendation in the report — by $10 million to $15 million, increasing the total to $35 million or $40 million.

The state will also hire a coordinator to promote a “Live Near Your Work” program that promotes homeownership in designated areas. The report had praised the program, but said it needed a full-time position to work with employers and jurisdictions to better market the program.

In addition, to reduce pollution from septic systems, the state will delineate “areas of special concern” where septic systems have the greatest potential to pollute water, Glendening said. Septics in those areas will be subject to more strict regulation. Noting that farmers and wastewater treatment plants are already working to reduce pollution, the governor said it “makes common sense” to deal with septic pollution from development in those areas.

Glendening acknowledged that some counties were implementing Smart Growth programs better than others, but said that will change over time, noting there has already been a “sea change” in the public’s attitude toward growth.