Anne Arundel County's new planning chief Joseph W. Rutter Jr., whose frenetic work schedule has earned him the moniker "Ironman," is rebuilding the county's planning office, recasting it in the image of the department he managed in Howard County.
Rutter left Howard's planning department in January after 36 years, 12 of them as director. During his time there, he created a planning and zoning office that, by most accounts, was efficient but not always in step with neighborhood activists.
Five months later he is streamlining and updating Anne Arundel's planning and zoning department, one that builders describe as bureaucratic and outdated.
"Now we have someone at the helm who is directing the ship," said Edward A. St. John, president of MIE Properties Inc. of Catonsville, who is building a 196,000-square-foot commercial and residential development off Riva Road near Annapolis.
Some residents, however, are still trying to get a better sense of what kind of planning director Rutter will be. They want to know if he will support communities working to protect fragile waterways, or work with developers.
"I appreciate that he made time to meet with us," said Dan Semick, president of the Cape St. John Citizens Association Inc., who met recently with Rutter on a development issue. "But it certainly didn't allay all of our concerns."
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who hired Rutter away from Howard, said she is pleased with Rutter's performance so far.
"Joe has jumped in and brought much-needed organization and management to planning and zoning," said Owens through her spokeswoman, Jody Hedeman Couser. "But most importantly, he is creating structure and predictability for the planning process."
In a telephone interview with The Sun last week, Rutter talked about some of his recent actions.
In an effort to clarify subdivision and zoning code, Rutter said, he is moving forward with plans to rewrite the code within the next year - a mammoth task that has been attempted and abandoned before.
Rutter said he will rewrite the subdivision code himself. He has asked Lois Villemarie, a zoning division administrator, to take on the zoning code.
"We don't have the same projects we did 30 years ago," Rutter said, referring to the last time some of the county's zoning code was revised.
Since his arrival - and despite a collapsed lung, a condition that required a hospital stay in April - Rutter has initiated staff changes that will allow planners and permit experts to work side by side, a move that could speed up plan and permit approval.
He also has talked about creating a research center to track lot inventories and the status of subdivision permits, something that already exists in Howard County. Rutter wants to put the data on the county's Web site. He also wants to use Planning Advisory Board meetings to get more information to residents concerning new developments and policy changes.
Rutter is meeting with building industry representatives about once every two months. Although past planning directors also met with builders, Rutter's meetings are not gripe sessions, according to developers who have attended the meetings. Builders familiar with Rutter's Howard County meetings said that he used the forum to explain policy changes and new rules.
So far, Rutter, who carefully plots every move he makes, has won cautious praise for his efforts from the building industry.
"Joe is looking to ramp it up and get more participation," said Susan Stroud Davies, co-director of Government Affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "And he is looking to lay out his program for the industry."
Still, members of several homeowner associations caution that it is too early to give Rutter a grade.
"The jury is still out," said Scott Mobley, president of the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation.
Mobley, who has met twice with Rutter - both times in large groups - said he is waiting to see how the new planning chief handles a huge redevelopment project in Parole.
Mobley also said he and other residents want Rutter to force developers to expand roads and sewers as they build projects in the Parole Growth Management Area, not after they build. In the past, construction has been allowed to go forward without the necessary infrastructure.
Rutter has said that he also is concerned about schools and the fact that home building has outpaced school construction in Anne Arundel. Four out of 12 school feeder systems are in areas shut down to new home building due to a lack of school seats. In response, some developers are switching to senior housing.
"The school facilities master plan has to be coordinated with the general development plan," Rutter said. "They are not in sync right now. ... Somebody messed up."
Home builders also are eager to resolve the school issue.
"We have a broken system," said Stroud Davies, who added that Rutter set up a system in Howard that allowed builders to plan for school capacity problems.
In Anne Arundel, developers often have no idea when school seats will be added.
Said Davies of Rutter and the tasks before him: "He knew coming in that he was going to have to implement an ambitious plan."