Planner Leaves Big City For Mt. Airy Challenge

December 09, 1990|By Daniel P. Clemens, Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens, Jr.,Staff writer

BALTIMORE - Teresa Merten, an architect for RTKL Associates Inc., looks out a window in a spacious conference room and sees the Inner Harbor sprawled out 10 stories below.

Well-dressed receptionists take messages and route her calls.

The 26-year-old Merten has traveled around the country in her three years at RTKL, an international architectural and engineering firm based in Baltimore.

She's worked on several high-profile projects, including the Camden Yards complex, where the Orioles' new baseball stadium is under construction.

Yet, Merten is leaving it all behind.

In January, she'll set up shop at Town Hall in Mount Airy as the new town planner.

"Some of the glamour might be gone, but I see there being a lot of reward in this kind of position," said Merten, a Cincinnati native, of the Mount Airy job.

Some might wonder whether Merten is taking a tumble down the career ladder.

Not so, she insists.

For one, Merten views her new job as an ideal opportunity to apply the range of experience she garnered at RTKL, including residential and commercial planning and working closely with developers and public administrators.

More importantly, Merten said she's nurtured an interest in the challenges faced by small communities encountering development pressures.

"For me, I see a lot of opportunity, doing something I believe in," she said.

While working at RTKL, Merten has seen several small communities ravaged by uncontrolled growth and left struggling to pick up the pieces. Often, her firm was called in for "damage control." Mount Airy, she says, is in position to avoid such travails as it tackles its growth challenges.

"Mount Airy is at a stage where the growth is controllable. The damage hasn't really been done yet," she said Wednesday. "They have the opportunity to be prepared. They're making all the right moves right now."

There is another aspect of the Mount Airy job that intrigues Merten.

Planners say they are noticing renewed interest in the pleasures of small-town life.

"The communities that are more pedestrian-oriented are being rediscovered," said Thomas Daniels, co-author of "The Small Town Planning Handbook," published by the American Planning Association. "That's really one of the greatest challenges (of growth management)."

Merten said it's exciting that people are turning to towns like Mount Airy instead of the homogeneous U.S. suburb.

"You have a house in the suburbs, and the kids have to take the bus to school, and if you want to go to the grocery you have to drive one place, and if you want to go to the post office you go somewhere else," she said.

"There are no opportunities to socialize, no integration of people. That's something small communities have."

Merten, who's hiring was announced Monday by the Town Council, said she sees Mount Airy as a potentially ideal place where well-planned growth might augment the traditional life there.

"They value their way of life and the more casual lifestyle," she said.

"I'm hoping I can be effective in promoting positive growth and yet keeping what's there."

Town administrators selected Merten from among 48 who applied for the job and seven finalists who came in for interviews. Town officials couldn't say enough about their new hire.

"It's a coup for us, it really is," said Councilman Oliver Davis, a member of the Planning Commission, who helped interview finalists for the job.

When asked what set Merten apart from the others, Council President R.

Delaine Hobbs said simply, "We asked everyone the same questions, and she answered them better than everyone else."

The job will be new for Merten, but it will be new for Mount Airy, too.

She'll be the town's first full-time planner.

For the past two years, the town paid a Baltimore County engineering consulting firm for the services of staff planner Judith Rabb. That cost Mount Airy about $100,000 during the past 18 months, leading administrators to wonder whether they couldn't save some money by hiring their own planner.

Strangely enough, council members refused to disclose the salary for the new position, after months of promoting the move as a significant money-saver. The Carroll County Sun has requested the salary information, under the state and federal Freedom of Information Act.

Hobbs only would say that he thought the town would see some savings.

Being the first to occupy the post has disadvantages, she said. But Merten said she welcomes the chance to launch a new venture.

A planner's work, though largely unsung, has direct impact on the growth and direction of a municipality. As the population in Mount Airy has doubled to about 4,000 over the past decade, the planning workload also has burgeoned. A planner works closely with developers and town officials, reviewing builders' proposals to ensure compliance with town regulations and also advising town administrators on development and annexation.

Another critical task is work on the town's Master Plan, a blueprint for growth that is updated every 10 years. The town Planning Commission, along with Rabb, has been working on the latest revision of the plan, which should be completed early next year.

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