As Peter Whoriskey's front-page series last month made clear [Aug. 8-10], sprawl continues unabated in the metropolitan region. The reasons are many. In a market economy, location decisions made by households and businesses are shaped by the trade-off between commuting costs and land prices and rents. While people disagree about whether market forces and the sprawl they create warrant a policy response, agreement is nearly universal that government structures and policies should not make matters worse.

Currently, that is not the case.

Although Virginia seems to pay scant attention to land-use issues, the administrations of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (and before them, the administrations of Govs. William Donald Schaefer, Harry R. Hughes and Marvin Mandel) recognized Maryland's legitimate interest in land-use planning. For this reason, Mandel gave the state the authority to intervene in local land-use decisions, Hughes protected the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from excessive development, and Schaefer created a growth commission.

Although Glendening spent considerable sums purchasing open space, the centerpiece of his Smart Growth program was the establishment of so-called priority funding areas, where the state would focus development-related expenditures. While it is premature to assess the success of this legislation, it appears the incentives offered were not enough.

Under the cash-starved Ehrlich administration, the situation has worsened. An incentive-based approach to priority funding areas has little effect when the state has little or no money to spend, when a project is not dependent on state funding or when the boundaries of the area are easily expanded.

While the public generally benefits when open space outside these areas is protected from development, the Maryland program has created no corresponding incentives or requirements for local governments to accept growth inside these areas. This disconnect is a major flaw in the program.

Last month Ehrlich signed an executive order that begins to address this flaw. It calls on the Maryland Department of Planning to help local governments estimate how much residential development they can accommodate under existing land-use plans and regulations.

The Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties agreed to encourage their member governments to conduct such analyses. In exchange for that promise, the Maryland Homebuilders' Association has agreed to refrain from introducing legislation that would require local governments to perform this fundamental planning calculation.

If these agreements result in comprehensive and regular assessments of development capacity, they will be important steps toward smarter growth on the Maryland side of the Potomac. But county officials in Maryland remain reluctant to take direction from the state and are concerned that the work required will amount to another unfunded mandate. The Ehrlich administration, in turn, seems unwilling either to order the counties to do the analysis or to pay the bill.

So the analyses of development capacity may not be forthcoming. Even if they are, local governments may be unwilling to accept their fair share of the additional 2 million people and 1.6 million jobs that are headed for this region by 2030.

Following the passage of Smart Growth laws in 1997, Maryland developed a national reputation as a leader in land-use reform. But compared with Oregon, which requires local governments to win state approval of their plans, or with Washington, which requires local governments to measure and report to the state progress toward density goals, or with New Jersey, which has adopted a statewide land-use plan, Maryland has yet to live up to its reputation. The reputation of Virginia as a state unwilling to address growth issues on either a regional or statewide basis, meanwhile, is well-deserved.

The technical quality of local planning in both Maryland and Virginia is quite high, especially in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs. But these planners serve the interests of local residents and policymakers. From this perspective, for example, it makes sense for Howard County to accommodate growth for only 10 more years, for Montgomery County to try to increase employment by 2 percent a year but restrain household growth to 1.4 percent and for Loudoun County to allow its policies to swing from pro-growth to no-growth and back with each passing election. But from a regional or statewide perspective, this makes no sense, and it will surely exacerbate the problems.

It is unrealistic to think Maryland, Virginia and the District will transcend their 18th-century jurisdictional boundaries and empower a regional land-use authority to counter the ill effects of parochial decision-making. The only short-term solution, therefore, may require tougher land-use management at the state level in both Maryland and Virginia -- a level of leadership that, to date, neither state has been willing to provide.

-- Gerrit Knaap

-- John W. Frece

are, respectively, executive director and

associate director of the National Center

for Smart Growth Research and Education

at the University of Maryland.