Retiring county planner looks back on long career spent looking ahead Growth, preservation were hallmarks of tenure

February 20, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

J. John "Jack" Dillon's name is no household word, but his mark on Baltimore County likely will be more lasting than those of most county executives.

His work developing laws to preserve farmland and later planning the Owings Mills growth center helped shape the county's transformation since the Beltway was new and Spiro T. Agnew was county executive.

When Mr. Dillon began his government career in 1962, the county was flush with jobs and booming with new tract houses and shopping centers. Social Security headquarters had opened in Woodlawn, bringing 22,000 jobs to the west side. Bethlehem Steel and General Motors had more than 30,000 jobs on the east side.

"It was a different world," said Mr. Dillon, who is retiring as a senior planner Feb. 29.

High-paying manufacturing jobs have all but vanished, along with cheap-and-easy development land. County revenues are flat, and older neighborhoods are battling blight.

Mr. Dillon focused on those problems, too, and people who worked with him -- in and out of government -- say his departure will be a big loss for the county.

"Jack planted an incredible number of seeds," said Judy Baer Bushong, a land preservationist and former director of the Valleys Planning Council, a private group dedicated to preserving the county's central valleys.

"He was invaluable," she said, noting that Mr. Dillon's work in the 1970s to create a rural zone allowing one house per 50 acres enabled the county to begin an agricultural preservation program.

During the 1950s and 1960s, builders seemingly had free rein in the county, and some residents thought zoning changes were virtually available for the asking.

"Lot sizes were determined by the county health department. There was no other planning guide to direct growth. The toughest standard was one house per acre," Mr. Dillon said.

As a result, many people didn't trust county zoning officials and politicians, but Ms. Bushong said Mr. Dillon worked quietly to reverse the trend.

"He inspired incredible trust," she said.

Mr. Dillon said the establishment of rural conservation zones "has had for me the most significant impact on the development of Baltimore County."

Early battles between residents and developers were the impetus, Mr. Dillon said, for the formation of most of the county's residential community associations.

And since 1971, the public has gained more power over the process -- first through the consolidation of all proposed land rezonings for review in four-year intervals, then through a 1974 change to election of County Council members by district instead of countywide voting.

After a new growth-management plan intended to funnel most new development into White Marsh and Owings Mills was adopted in 1979, Mr. Dillon became the principal planner for Owings Mills.

He worked on the first malls and on plans that were never realized for a lake in Owings Mills. Recessions forced changes, knocking out some expensive projects.

"The lake would have made a tremendous difference," he said.

According to former county planning Director P. David Fields, Mr. Dillon delivered more than technical expertise.

"His personality set the tone for the planning office. He epitomized the good side of public service," said Mr. Fields, who heads the county's Community Conservation Program.

During his nine years as a councilman, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III worked closely with Mr. Dillon. "I respected and relied on him," the executive said.

Mr. Dillon's perseverance had its rewards. "I never rezoned a farm," Mr. Ruppersberger said.

After 13 years of work on Owings Mills, Mr. Dillon asked for a change and moved in recent years to a new set of challenges in the revitalization of the east side's Essex and Middle River areas.

"You've got to be optimistic," said the tousled, gray-bearded, bespectacled father of three grown children, reflecting on his career.

"I'll miss the unexpected. You never know what's on the other end of the phone calls."

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