Traditionally, the way towns and cities grew was a strictly local matter. But Americans have been waking to the wider impact of these local decisions for decades. The country has now reached the point where growth policies - or, specifically, the sprawl such policies often have encouraged - is becoming a national issue.

The Clinton administration is helping shape that issue. The president plugged controlled growth and land preservation in his State of the Union address. Vice President Gore has stewardship of the administration's "livable communities initiative," which embraces limited federal incentives to save open space, build public transit, and curb pollution.

Clearly, this is an issue that politicians with an eye toward what might enliven a presidential campaign are eager to exploit. Federal efforts, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's "antisprawl" campaign for New England, may have some impact. But, as with education, the important action is at the state and local levels.

Suburban sprawl is a concern coast to coast. Valuable farmland is transmogrifying into housing tracts in California's Central Valley, and in the rural counties that abut Chicago and Milwaukee. Open space and once-quiet country towns are engulfed by hop-scotch development patterns in Eastern Seaboard states like Maryland and New Jersey.

Those two states are among the few that have taken the offensive against sprawl. In November, New Jersey voters decided to spend $1 billion over the next decade to preserve half its remaining open land. In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening has spearheaded a much-discussed program called "Smart Growth." It attempts to rein in development by limiting state infrastructure spending - roads, sewers, waste disposal facilities, new schools - to already established communities.

The Maryland experiment, in force for only a year, could help answer some key questions: Can a state call the tune for counties and municipalities that may favor fewer restrictions on growth? Will increasingly numerous suburbanites demand the freedom to live where they want, on whatever size lot they want, regardless of state-level planning?

Another governor, Roy Barnes of Georgia, has proposed a regional transportation authority with the power to overrule local jurisdictions. Theoretically, it will be able to push public transit lines through Atlanta's sprawling and often gridlocked suburbs. But the same questions about clashing interests will apply there.

One thing to keep in mind as the growth/sprawl issue makes its way into national politics: More than most, this issue interweaves the various strata of government. Washington has in mind national goals like cleaner air. States have concerns about the economic value of natural landscapes and of productive farmland. Counties and cities often jealously guard local control over planning and zoning.

More livable communities is a desirable national goal. Its realization requires exceptional levels of intergovernmental cooperation - and strong backing from individual citizens.

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