Planner's future subject of rumors New executive Robey says he'll take time to decide Rutter's fate

'I would miss this place'

November 15, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

Less than 48 hours after Howard County voters elected a new county executive, Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. received a call from his counterpart in Anne Arundel County, Steven Cover, whose own boss was turned out of office.

"He said to me, 'Are we going to pass each other on [Route] 32?' " Rutter recalls, chuckling at the idea of trading places with Cover.

A seemingly innocent joke, the question has taken on a serious tone amid rumors about the future of Rutter, a man who many believe has aided the growth explosion of a county that has nearly doubled in population since 1980.

As County Executive Charles I. Ecker begins to make way for his successor, James N. Robey, one of the first questions the former police chief will have to answer is whether to retain Rutter as director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Robey isn't saying much, but as he suggests, there are plenty of opinions -- pro and con -- about Rutter.

"I know the development community loves him and the residential community hates him," Robey says. "I'm not going to move too quickly."

One of Rutter's supporters is Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

"I've dealt with lots of planning directors and Joe by far has been the best to work with," Story says. "I have been absolutely comfortable since Day Two that I can hand off things to Joe and he will recognize the importance of what I'm giving him and that he will get things done."

Counters Peter J. Oswald, one of dozens of homeowners leading a fight against a proposed mixed-use mega-complex in Fulton: "Personally, he seems like a nice guy, but I think it's time for a change in that position. I think Joe and that department have become staunch advocates for developers rather than for the county."

Rutter says he would like to keep his job.

"This is a fantastic staff that works their butts off," he says. "I would miss this place."

Howard County is caught in the middle of a classic battle between those who see a need -- and a market -- for new houses and those who want to preserve the area's attractions.

Homeowners argue that growth could jeopardize a county recognized as offering one of the best public school systems and one of the lowest crime rates in the state.

But those factors and Howard's equidistant location between Baltimore and Washington also are attracting new residents at a rate of 5,641 a year since 1992.

According to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an umbrella group of local and state planners, the county is expected to reach build-out stage, with space available for development used up, by 2015.

Rutter's supporters contend that no one person can be blamed for such rapid growth. But County Councilman Darrel Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, notes that Rutter is in a position where the spotlight is always on.

"He's the point man, and he gets it [the scrutiny]," Drown says. "The job is an extension of the [county] executive, but it is also a part of his beliefs."

Rutter, who will be 52 next month, is the eldest of three boys born to Joseph and Marge Rutter. Raised in Kensington in Baltimore County until the family moved in 1954 to what eventually became Columbia, Rutter graduated from Howard High School in 1964 and got a job working for the State Highway Administration.

In 1966, Rutter was hired by the then-Office of Planning and Zoning for Howard County to help design the South Hanover Extension over the railroad near the Howard-Anne Arundel border in Elkridge.

For 20 years, Rutter climbed the career ladder, serving as an engineer technician, a planner, and chief of research until he became chief of the zoning division in 1986.

That year, Elizabeth Bobo became county executive and named Uri Avin her planning director. For the deputy planning director position, Bobo promoted Rutter.

Avin and Rutter were polar opposites. By most accounts, Avin was a brilliant visionary who wore expensive suits and despised working with residents. Rutter, who rolls up his sleeves before sitting down with visitors in his office, graduated from Howard Community College and never sought a bachelor's degree in land-use planning or engineering.

Rutter's open-door policy endears him to several civic groups, including the Greater Elkridge Community Association, which applauded his decision in August to subject a Baltimore company to public hearings after the firm built a recycling transfer station in the community without obtaining permission.

"His integrity is unquestioned," says association vice president Kevin Doyle. "I don't think that in any time we have dealt with him, that we felt that we had been misled."

Avin, who did not return several calls seeking an interview, and Rutter were instrumental in slowing growth under the Bobo administration, including placing a cap on building permits during the late 1980s. But after Ecker upset Bobo in her 1990 bid for re-election, he fired Avin and promoted Rutter.

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