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 projects such as school construction and 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, the fifth most densely populated state in the country, to pass along a similarly beautiful landscape to future generations.

“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 at the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City.

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.

Lawmakers from rural counties were not impressed with O’Malley’s presentation.

“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 O’Malley 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.