Howard County's longtime planning director, a lightning rod for criticism from slow-growth advocates in one of Maryland's fastest-growing counties, is leaving his post after 12 years to take the same job in Anne Arundel County.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., 56, is moving on after 36 years working for his native Howard County, despite attempts by Howard County Executive James N. Robey to keep him.
Rutter said he stayed in Howard County for the chance to help write a new county general plan, a once-a-decade exercise, but now the challenge in Anne Arundel is bigger and beckoning.
"This is the toughest decision I've ever made," he said. "Growth is probably more contentious in Anne Arundel County than it is here. Many areas have more serious traffic and school capacity concerns," he said, adding, "I really like Janet Owens," Anne Arundel's county executive. Rutter, who makes $102,800, is eligible for a county pension when he retires Jan. 16.
Owens called Rutter "a versatile manager and well-respected land-use expert." Rutter, she says, will lead the department of Planning and Zoning in Anne Arundel.
Robey tried to persuade Rutter to stay, but, Robey said: "Anything I can do or offer would be inadequate. I know that Anne Arundel has been courting Joe for the last three years, but he has his 36 years in and his chance to move on. I can understand."
Howard will embark on a comprehensive rezoning next year, which County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said will be more of a challenge with a new director. "He served the county well," Guzzone said of Rutter, adding that they had a good professional relationship, though "clearly we've had our disagreements."
A national search will be conducted for a new planning director, Robey said, adding that he is interested in someone strong on redevelopment and revitalization, issues Howard will face more frequently because the county has little land left for development.
"It's such a sensitive and high-profile job, I want to make sure I've looked far and wide."
After his election in 1998 on a slow-growth platform, Robey was under pressure to fire Rutter, but he refused and kept the planner.
Slow-growth advocates who fought three large mixed-use developments in southern Howard - Emerson, Maple Lawn Farms and Cherrytree Park - thought Rutter was too close to and too supportive of developers and wanted him gone.
"I think if you look around Howard County and see how we've developed, I think it's awful," said Peter Oswald, a south county critic. He pointed to the commercialization and traffic congestion in Clarksville, and the daily backups on U.S. 29 as proof. "I think Joe's got to take some responsibility for that."
Oswald and others argued that the three new developments in the southern county would overwhelm existing neighborhoods and exacerbate traffic problems.
Robey embraced the mixed-use concept as a good Smart Growth plan to keep major growth in eastern Howard while keeping public utilities out of the western county.
And Rutter says he is proud of Howard County.
"Look at the quality of development in Howard County. If nothing else, the prices the market will pay tells you it's pretty darn good."
Rutter acknowledged that some will welcome his departure.
"I'm pleased with what's been accomplished, but the fact of the matter is, there will dancing in the streets in Highland, Dayton and Fulton tonight," he joked, adding that although criticism may be common locally, "on a national level we're recognized as being right at the top."
And Rutter has not minded the criticism.
"I don't mind being the lightning rod. Part of the job is educating people. Bureaucratic inefficiency shouldn't be a way of managing growth," he said, defending his attempts to streamline the process for developers.
Oswald says he too wants to focus on the future.
"I think it's good now if he [Robey] can bring someone new in to take a fresh new look at how to implement the General Plan," he said. "I look at it as an opportunity to bring in someone new."
Rutter, who lives in Woodbine, said he will now join the throngs of Route 32 commuters, though he might eventually move to Anne Arundel.
A known workaholic, Rutter said he might miss the worst road congestion, though, "if I leave early enough in the morning and not run into traffic at night."