Planning director becoming a pioneer

McLaughlin faces county that likely will be among first in Md. to hit capacity

April 10, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Marsha McLaughlin studied art history in college, but the contrast between beautiful things in museums and ugly development in the places where people spend their lives prodded her to reconsider her chosen career.

"Can't we do a better job ... in the real world?" she wondered.

Twenty-nine years of trying to do a better job - as a planner - has landed McLaughlin in the important and powerful post of guiding development patterns in Howard County, which is enduring the growing pains of decades of booming construction even as it downshifts into redevelopment and revitalization.

In some important ways, McLaughlin is a Maryland planning pioneer. Howard County appears likely to be among the first in the state to be filled to capacity, as defined by the county's master plan. How Howard copes with that turning point is certain to be watched closely by planners elsewhere across the state.

McLaughlin, 54, became the county's planning director this week after 12 years as the deputy. She spent the past few months handling both jobs while leaders searched for a replacement for Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who left in January to take over Anne Arundel County's planning efforts.

It seems unlikely that she could have the sweeping impact of her predecessor, who presided when the county rezoned about 100,000 acres in rural communities, which allowed developments that cluster together in the west and - to some residents' extreme dismay - opened the door to Columbia-style developments in the south.

But McLaughlin, who lives in Baltimore County, sees plenty of challenges ahead, most notably the task of encouraging U.S. 1 landowners to remake the sagging strip into a pedestrian-friendly Main Street with attractive offices and apartments. She is recommending zoning changes, originally proposed by a citizens' committee, that are seen as a key push in that direction.

She said she also wants to rework development regulations to make sure "infill" - the increasingly common practice of subdividing generous yards in older neighborhoods and constructing anew - fits in better.

"I suspect it's not a one-shot deal," she added, noting that the rules should continue to be re-evaluated as patterns change.

Residents who have long lobbied for infill rules are very happy to hear that - and even happier that one of the first things she did as acting director was meet with them to find out what they think needs fixing.

"She's shown an open mind," said David Catania, an Ellicott City resident who testified 2 1/2 years ago that the laws needed updating. "Marsha is listening, and we appreciate her listening. ... I'm expecting her to do a great job."

Catania hoped she would take over as planning director because he likes her style and he believes her familiarity with the county is critical as her department sifts through the competing demands of comprehensive rezoning - the once-a-decade revision of how development should proceed in Howard.

But McLaughlin's time with the planning department, nearly 15 years in all, is exactly the reason Peter Oswald wanted to see someone new.

"I thought it was a good opportunity to have a fresh view, a fresh perspective," said Oswald, a Fulton resident opposed to the mixed-use zoning instituted in southern Howard. "I frankly don't like the way we've developed over the last 10 years, 20 years. I think it's been too much, too fast, and we've overburdened our roads and our schools."

McLaughlin, a Lutherville resident who is married with four children, grew up in a New Jersey suburb of New York City and lived for about two years in Europe while in elementary school, an experience she said sparked a curiosity about why places look the way they do.

"There's a certain amount of homogeneity in American development," she said. "Sprawl, I guess, is a big part of that. I got interested in why it was that our rural and suburban and urban areas function and look so different from elsewhere in the world, so that kind of lured me into planning."

It wasn't her career goal at first. McLaughlin earned a bachelor's degree in art history from Duke University in 1970 but decided that the academic world wasn't right for her "action-oriented" personality and her growing interest in building good communities. Four years later, she graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a master's in landscape architecture and planning.

Her field, she said, is ultimately about setting "parameters that bring some degree of order out of chaos."

She worked in Massachusetts, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Baltimore before coming to Howard County. In Baltimore, she focused on revitalization for the quasi-public Market Center Development Corp.

McLaughlin said she wants to study U.S. 40 in the same manner as U.S. 1, building on a new master plan put together by Ellicott City residents. She hopes to begin that work in the fall.

The Ellicott City residents had wanted such support - and were disappointed not to get it - when they started their work a year and a half ago.

McLaughlin acknowledged that planners have been consumed by development applications and big-picture work such as comprehensive rezoning, but she promised to devote more staff time to community planning, environmental protection and historic preservation.

She said she wants to bring peace - whenever possible - to the battlefield that is growth management, to suggest solutions that appeal to developers and residents fighting for ground.

"Finding a position that works for everybody is important," McLaughlin said.

"As we get increasingly more urban in Howard County, it's going to be more important, not less," she said.

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