Marsha S. McLaughlin, who for nearly 12 years has been deputy director of Howard County's planning department, will step into the top job at least temporarily as officials continue their national search for Joseph W. Rutter Jr.'s successor.
McLaughlin takes the reins at a time of change for Howard County, which has been defined by fast growth for more than 30 years but is slowing as raw land runs out, prompting increasing complaints from residents about new homes being squeezed into small spaces.
Her department's immediate challenge is recommending zoning changes to the County Council as elected officials decide how to guide development for the next decade. The planners' proposals are expected in a month or so.
McLaughlin takes over Jan. 17, when Rutter, who has worked in the Howard planning department for 36 years and led it for the past 12, leaves to head Anne Arundel County's planning efforts.
County Executive James N. Robey, who has called the post "one of the most sensitive jobs in government," said he will take applications for the permanent job until Friday and that he hopes to name a new director in mid-March.
Robey was not available yesterday to comment on McLaughlin's chances for the permanent position. She has said that she is "definitely interested" in the job. "This certainly gives me a chance to see how I like being in the director's hot seat," she said yesterday.
The 54-year-old Lutherville resident, who is married and has four children, joined Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning in 1988 as chief of the land development division. In her nearly 29-year planning career, she has worked in the U.S. Virgin Islands, California, Massachusetts and Baltimore.
She considers Howard a progressive place and says she is keen to take on the challenges of revitalization and redevelopment.
"It continues to be a very interesting place," McLaughlin said.
Chuck Kines, who left the Howard planning department last summer to work on transportation planning for Montgomery County, said he was "very impressed" by McLaughlin and hopes she keeps the director's job. She struck him as energetic, organized and sensitive to community needs, he said.
"Marsha taking over the helm will definitely be good for Howard County," Kines said. "It is an opportunity to become more community-oriented."
Linda Dombrowski, an Ellicott City resident who joined the county Planning Board after fighting commercial development in her neighborhood, said she appreciated McLaughlin's efforts to help community groups understand a raft of proposed changes in regulations that were approved in 2001.
"She obviously knew her stuff forwards and backwards," Dombrowski said. "I found her very inclusive and informative."
Whoever becomes the next director of planning needs to understand that "there's still some important growth and development land-use decisions to be made," Dombrowski said.
"Growth isn't finished here," she said. "Changes are on the horizon."
Ann Jones of Ellicott City, who works in land preservation, hopes for a planning director with strong skills in site design, someone to ensure the development filling in leftover spaces in Howard's neighborhoods will also fit in visually.
"How you relate an infill house to the house right next to it has a substantial impact," Jones said. "If we're really serious about anything approximating Smart Growth, it's really the site design that's going to make that work or kill it."