The proposed Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act of 1991, which would classify all land in the state of Maryland for either development or conservation, is long overdue.

This act, recently released by the drafting committee of the Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region, follows recommendations proposed two years ago by the Year 2020 Panel, made up of representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The panel proposed that development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed be concentrated in planned growth areas rather than distributed anywhere and everywhere in suburban "sprawl."

To achieve that goal, the new Maryland land-use act drafted by the commission would strictly limit density outside of existing or designated growth areas while increasing density within those areas.

The act is predicated on findings of need and future "visions" that should come as no surprise to anyone:

Protecting the state's natural resources, especially the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed made up of agricultural lands, forested areas, tidal and non-tidal wetlands, anadromous spawning areas, submerged aquatic vegetation, wildlife and waterfowl habitats, dedicated open space and mineral extraction areas.

Nurturing Maryland's economic health and continuation of sound economic development.

Providing adequate public services.

Revitalizing the state's older, declining urban and suburban areas to "promote an improved quality of urban life" and "opportunities for housing."

Applying consistently across the state "growth, environment and resource management policies."

This last objective is among the most controversial and certainly the most critical to implementation, since it mandates that all state agencies and local jurisdictions "exercising planning and zoning powers" cooperate and coordinate.

In other words, the act would impose a form of regional planning and land-use regulation somewhat limiting the traditional autonomy of Maryland counties and municipalities.

However, in furtherance of this objective, the act would encourage local jurisdictions to employ growth-management techniques such as: adequate public facilities ordinances; incentive zoning; cluster, mixed-use and planned unit development zoning; transfer of development rights, a method for compensating landowners who, in effect, have their property downzoned; transportation-demand management -- the use of alternative work hours, car and van pools, subsidized transit passes, peak parking charges; and developer exactions, such as off-site improvements, land dedication or impact fees.

Several Maryland jurisdictions already are using these techniques, but in rural areas they are new and untested ideas.

Thus, the commission's intention is not to substitute completely the state's wisdom and authority for that of local jurisdictions, which would continue to have primary responsibility for regulating growth. Rather it would obligate local governments to act not only in the interests of their immediate constituents, but also in the interests of their jurisdictional neighbors, of all others in the region and of the state.

The growth act proposal recognizes an undeniable scientific reality that has yet to be matched by political reality: Stewardship of the environment is a regional, not a local, undertaking. Development in one jurisdiction directly affects neighboring jurisdictions. Therefore traditional jurisdictional boundaries can no longer define the edges of growth planning.

The draft act would place all land within Maryland's borders into four categories:

Developed areas. These are lands in municipalities, lands adjacent to municipalities that have sewer service and are substantially developed -- at least 75 percent of their development rights already must be utilized -- or lands consisting of residential development of at least two units per acre, commercial or industrial uses, institutional uses, active recreational uses such as golf courses, or community uses, such as cemeteries.

Growth areas. Occupying this category are undeveloped lands or lands with less than 75 percent of their development rights utilized, planned to accommodate growth over the next 20 years. Such lands would be served by community sewer systems and would be located either adjacent to existing developed areas or at sites designated for concentrated new development.

Sensitive areas. Included in this category would be 100-year-old flood plains, intermittent and perennial streams and their buffers, critical habitats of endangered species and steep slopes.

Rural and resource areas. All lands in the state not specifically in the developed, growth or sensitive area categories would fall into this fourth category.

In sensitive and rural and resource areas, local jurisdictions would be required by state law to restrict development to no more than one dwelling unit per 20 acres.

By contrast, in growth areas average residential densities would have to be at least 3.5 dwelling units per acre. In addition, land sufficient for commercial and industrial uses to sustain a minimum ratio of 1.4 jobs per household would have to be located in developed and growth areas, as would 65 percent or more of all new Maryland households.

These provisions, beyond regionally managing growth and preserving the landscape, could affect transportation needs and transportation systems performance. By concentrating higher densities, mixed uses and employment in developed or growth areas, future urban communities might achieve enough critical mass for people to travel conveniently via public transportation, bicycle or even walking, instead of being eternally dependent on automobiles.

Maryland is following in the footsteps of a number of other states -- Oregon, New Jersey, Florida -- whose governments have decided that some amount of statewide and regional land-use policy, planning and regulation has become necessary, not to discourage or stop growth, but to direct it intelligently in the interest of environmental preservation.

As in other states, some residents of Maryland -- mostly owners of farmland -- will balk at this proposed legislation, primarily because economically their ox will be gored. The act would greatly curtail rural land speculation, holding down and stabilizing the value of farmland and other exurban property.

Farmers no longer could mortgage or sell their land based on its prospective use for future subdivisions, strip shopping centers, and office and industrial parks. Many farms would remain farms, at least for the next 20 years.

But this seems to be a small price, if it's a price at all, to pay for orderly and well-planned growth in this rapidly urbanizing region.

Given the benefits that will accrue to the overwhelming majority of those who live and work here, the costs of Maryland adopting these policies seem minimal. The General Assembly should enact, and Gov. William Donald Schaefer should sign, this important and necessary law.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.