Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and county officials who oppose his plan to curb suburban sprawl fired opening shots Friday in a battle to set a statewide land-use plan that could dramatically affect whether local communities would be eligible to receive state funds for everything from school construction to new roads.

O’Malley is hoping to succeed with a smart-growth plan where Democratic governors before him have failed over two decades. The state’s large and powerful counties have repeatedly killed or weakened such efforts in the past to maintain local control over development decisions.

The governor, however, is invoking a 37-year-old law granting the executive branch power to develop a plan without a new vote by the General Assembly. He said it’s the only way for Maryland, which is already the fifth most densely populated state in the country, to pass along a similarly beautiful landscape to future generations.

The plan seeks to maintain as agricultural or forest land more than 400,000 acres that Maryland planners project would otherwise be developed over the next 20 years. To do so, it would use a carrot-and-stick approach, effectively rewarding local governments that abide by state plans to maintain open space, and punishing those who do not create more dense housing and development around existing cities.

O’Malley used an example of homes built on 2-acre plots with septic systems as bad example of sprawl, compared to homes built within a city on half-acre plots and sewer hookups.

“We do not want to take over local planning prerogative and local zoning prerogatives,” O’Malley told a standing-room only crowd of hundreds of county officials who turned out to hear him speak at the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City. “Our purpose is to work with you not against you, to share in an open, transparent way, where we are targeting state investments.”

Asked by a reporter to explain what he meant, O’Malley put it more bluntly:

The land-use plan, dubbed Plan Maryland, “is not a straight-jacket for counties,” O’Malley said. “This is not a wall that prohibits counties from making stupid land-use decisions. They’re still free to do that, but we’re not going to subsidize it any more.”

O’Malley said a robust master-plan for Maryland development could not only protect farm land, but reduce by more than $1.5 billion annually the amount the state needs to spend to build new roads to new developments, and also cut by hundreds of millions more the amount needed to maintenance and expand existing roads, water and sewer lines. He said such development would also curb pollution that sickens the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawmakers from rural counties were not impressed.

“It has the effect of taking land use decisions out of the domains of elected officials who are accountable to the people and putting them in the hands of [state] agencies who are not accountable to the people,” said Richard Rothschild, a Carroll County commissioner who implored the governor to extend a scheduled comment period on the plan that ends next month to a year or more.

“The vernacular in the plan does not match the vernacular in the [governor’s] presentation. His presentation was ‘don’t worry be happy’ but if you read the plan it’s a trajectory toward state takeover that is clear and evident. It is not subtle,” Rothschild said.

Frederick County Commission President Blaine R. Young asked O’Malley to rewrite the plan to be more specific about how far the state will go in mandating development decisions.

“We’re scared to death to think this is going to be mandated … what you had on one of your slides said this isn’t going to be mandated, but what I’m hearing is it’s going to be; that what I’m reading between the lines,” Young said.

O’Malley refused: “No. I’m not going to put specific language that would say that … thus far will the state go and no further.”

Secretary of Planning Richard Hall said the state has already made several changes to its draft plan based on comments from counties and after a revised plan is released next month, local governments will have an additional 30 days to comment.

Del. Susan Krebs (R-Carroll) said the governor was moving too fast. She said the plan doesn’t contemplate what might happen to farmers whose land is designated outside state approved areas for development. Krebs said farmers depend on the developable value of their land to secure loans.

“Have they thought about that?” she said. “This is all moving too fast.”

O’Malley quipped that it was the first time he’d heard Annapolis accused of moving to quickly. He also gestured toward the Ocean City boardwalk and joked that he would put Hall, the planning director, in a in a dunking booth for county officials to take their shots.