Interim leader given nod as top planner

National search for chief ends with local candidate

`This woman is fantastic'

McLaughlin is chosen for continuity, experience

April 08, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

After searching nationally for a new planning director, Howard County Executive James N. Robey yesterday chose the homegrown candidate -- as many expected he would -- to guide the maturing suburb through the uncharted waters of major redevelopment and revitalization.

Marsha McLaughlin, a Howard County planner for nearly 15 years, most of that time as deputy director, will permanently fill the job she had temporarily held since Joseph W. Rutter Jr. left for Anne Arundel County in January.

Land-use attorneys and developers had privately said they hoped McLaughlin would remain at the helm because the county is in the middle of the important once-a-decade process of setting development patterns -- a terrible time, they thought, for a newcomer to take the reins.

Robey echoed that sentiment in a statement yesterday: "There are some very innovative zoning proposals in this comprehensive plan that call for a continuity that only someone with in-depth and long-term insight into the community can fully appreciate and bring forward."

More than 60 people applied for the job, seven of whom were brought in for interviews. McLaughlin, Robey said, was a top candidate from the start.

Rutter was a polarizing figure -- praised by developers and disliked by many community activists -- but his deputy appears to have won support in both camps.

"This woman is fantastic," said County Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat who turned to McLaughlin for help when a complicated land situation made it nearly impossible for hundreds of Elkridge residents to refinance or sell their homes. "I have seen her work, and her level of experience and knowledge is just incredible."

McLaughlin, 54, a Lutherville resident, joined Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning in 1988 as chief of the land development division. Since joining the planning ranks in 1974, she has worked in the U.S. Virgin Islands, California, Massachusetts and Baltimore.

She will earn $99,819 annually.

McLaughlin was not available for comment yesterday, but she said in an earlier interview that she has stayed with Howard for nearly half of her career because "it's a very progressive place" with talented planners and supportive politicians. She said she is eager to lead planning efforts as the suburb turns away from booming growth on vast tracts of farmland to focused redevelopment of aging areas such as U.S. 1.

By 2020, planners expect Howard to be "built out," with new construction coming only on already developed pieces of land.

"It's kind of a whole new chapter for Howard County," McLaughlin said earlier this year. "It continues to be a very interesting place to be."

Lynne Bergling, an Ellicott City resident active in zoning matters, said she is encouraged by the way McLaughlin handled the department as acting director. Though she respected Rutter's deep knowledge of Howard County, Bergling said she was frustrated by his interpretations of law -- especially zoning enforcement, which she thinks was lax.

She is also pleased that McLaughlin is meeting with Ellicott City residents to help her craft new regulations for "infill," an increasingly common type of development in which new homes crop up in established neighborhoods on what used to be back yards. Residents complain that the results are often ill-planned.

McLaughlin has promised to recommend changes to the lawmakers.

"She is open to community suggestions," Bergling said.

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