Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sent dismissal notices to eight top state environmental officials yesterday, part of a purge of key agency staff that will commence as soon as the Republican is sworn in at noon tomorrow.

Letters written by Ehrlich's designee for appointments secretary, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., were hand-delivered yesterday morning to four officials at the Department of Natural Resources, three at the Department of the Environment and to the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, who reviews decisions about land use on the shores of the bay and its tributaries.

"The incoming administration recognizes your valuable contributions on behalf of the state of Maryland," the letter says. But, "the people of this state have voted for a change in state government.

"Our intention is to make immediate changes in the governor's cabinet and key personnel in order to begin implementing a new vision for the future of Maryland. Please be advised that upon the swearing-in of the new governor at 12:00 p.m. on January 15, 2003, the new governor's appointees will be assuming responsibility for your position."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the letters were among 30 delivered yesterday to "top leadership" below the cabinet secretary level in 18 agencies across state government. Fawell declined to identify those officials by name or position, but sources in the current administration said letters also were delivered at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Business and Economic Development.

The new administration has settled on replacements for the 30 employees, Fawell said, but it has no authority to terminate them until Ehrlich is inaugurated.

"They're basically courtesy letters to thank these individuals for their contribution and to let them know the governor intends to make changes," he said.

While an incoming governor has the right to make personnel changes in the upper levels of state government -- and Ehrlich, as the first GOP governor elected in 36 years, is expected to bring wholesale change -- workers were struck by the nature of the dismissals.

At the Department of Natural Resources, for example, a tall, thin man in a dark overcoat delivered one letter to its intended recipient with the word, "Sorry."

"These are not political employees," said Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox, who referred to those being terminated as "my top four women."

"These are longtime government career employees who have dedicated their lives to public service," Fox said.

Others noted that Ehrlich seemed to be targeting the environmental legacy of outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening before taking office.

While Glendening (D) is an ardent environmentalist for whom preserving land and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay have been cornerstones of his administration, Ehrlich did not make the environment a central theme of his campaign and often has voted against tightening environmental regulations in Congress.

Environmental activists said the dismissals seemed especially odd given that Ehrlich has yet to name new secretaries for the two departments. Ehrlich considered merging the departments into a single agency but has rejected the idea for now.

Environmentalists reacted cautiously to the news. "Until we see who he puts in, it's hard to say it indicates a radical shift in policy," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "He is taking people who know how to get things done and have incredible amounts of information, and they're gone. I was hoping more for a handoff kind of thing."

The first of the letters arrived as early as 9 a.m. yesterday when the man in the dark coat -- promptly dubbed "trench-coat man" by his targets -- showed up at the Annapolis office of the Department of Natural Resources. Assistant Secretary Carolyn Watson said she had just arrived at work when a guard at the front desk asked her to accompany the man to the secretary's office.

When the two got into the elevator, Watson introduced herself and stuck out her hand. The man shook her hand, "then pulled his away in one fluid motion, dipped into his leather portfolio, whipped out very dramatically this envelope and looks at me and says, 'Sorry.' "

"It was like being subpoenaed," she said. "It was so absurd, it was funny."

Watson -- who oversees fisheries, forestry and wildlife -- has gained a reputation as being "anti-hunter," activists said, which they noted could explain Ehrlich's decision to replace her. Another letter went to Deputy Secretary Karen White, who worked on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial campaign against Ehrlich.

But the other environmental choices were more difficult to explain, activists said. Natural Resources Assistant Secretary Verna E. Harrison, for example, has overseen bay protection programs for three governors. Assistant Secretary Sumita Chaudhuri deals with administrative issues and has little political baggage, according to administration officials.

The firings leave one assistant secretary at the department: Michael J. Nelson.

At the Department of the Environment, Ehrlich's team delivered letters to Deputy Secretary Merrylin Zaw-Mon and lower-level officials, including Robin Grove, a male Republican who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency during the first Bush administration.

His letter, however, was addressed to "Ms. Grove," prompting administration officials to speculate that Ehrlich's team had no idea whom they were firing. Grove said he was never contacted by transition team members. "I've been honored to serve both Republican and Democratic administrations, and I certainly would have enjoyed the opportunity to serve Governor-elect Ehrlich," he said.

Staff writer Anita Huslin contributed to this report.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first GOP governor in 36 years, is expected to make many changes.