A much-anticipated Howard County division overseeing environmental issues is drawing criticism from local activists concerned about its autonomy.
The newly approved Division of Environmental and Community Planning was created to revitalize aging communities, protect the environment and help county officials form a strategy to preserve open space.
But skeptics argue that the division's authority will be diluted because it is being staffed with planners from the Department of Planning and Zoning who have little experience in conservation and even less authority to oppose environmentally destructive projects.
"It looks good on paper. but I have concerns that it's part of Planning and Zoning instead of being a separate, independent power," said Joyce Kelly, former president and trustee of Howard County Conservancy Inc. "If it's in Planning and Zoning, it won't have its own authority."
Residents fed up with new residential subdivisions eating up forests and with commercial developments dumping waste into nearby creeks have longed for a county agency that protectes the environment.
In July, the General Plan Task Force, a 34-member panel of civic activists and business leaders, told County Executive James N. Robey the formation of such an agency should be a high priority.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, acknowledged that his decision to reorganize his staff to create the Division of Environmental and Community Planning was prompted by the task force's suggestion.
"That kind of helped nail it because they expressed the same concern that Jim and I have expressed," Rutter said. "This is a way to provide that focus."
Besides taking a look at ways to enhance aging residential communities, the division will work with environmental groups to develop strategies to protect tributaries and open space and serve as a liaison to homeowner groups concerned about the environment.
The division -- the sixth within the Department of Planning and Zoning -- will help the department's five other divisions concentrate on their priorities.
"The land development people looking at each individual project don't have the time to stand back and see the `big picture' plan," Rutter said. "This group wouldn't be hung up with the day-to-day review of these plans."
But some activists argue that Rutter's plan to staff the division with nine current employees from the Department of Planning and Zoning weakens the division's ability to independently review residential and commercial projects.
"I would have expected that if you're going to transfer people you would use people, say, from the natural resources division of the Department of Recreation and Parks instead of planners from the Department of Planning and Zoning," said Lee Walker Oxenham, an Ellicott City resident who has led an attempt to block a developer from building 10 homes on 10 acres of environmentally sensitive land. "The idea was to give a constituency for the environment."
Peter J. Esseff is even more blunt in his assessment, contending that the division will rubber-stamp every plan that Rutter and his planners favor.
"I have very little hope that any administration under Joe Rutter is going to help us and not the developers," said Esseff, president of the Dayton Community Association, which is fighting a 95-home project near the Triadelphia Reservoir. "I hate to be cynical, but experience has taught us that they operate on their own whim."
Rutter defends the restructuring. Although Deputy Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin is the acting division head, Rutter said the department is looking for a division chief with experience in natural resource protection.
He also disputes any notion that the division's staff will be overwhelmed by either environmental issues or his view on certain projects.
"I would challenge anyone who thinks that," Rutter said. "The county executive will establish priorities, and regardless if it's in one department or on its own, this agency will carry out those priorities."
County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone calls the criticism premature.
"I don't think it's appropriate to criticize something before it even has a chance to open its doors," said Guzzone, a Democrat whose district includes North Laurel. "I think it's important to give them an opportunity to establish themselves first."