Principal figure in land-use debate

Director: Marsha McLaughlin remains calm and focused on the issues.

September 11, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Marsha McLaughlin had kept the roomful of prominent developers and lawyers waiting several minutes. So when she finally arrived, she darted across the room in jackhammer mini-steps, cutting an imposing figure with her lanky frame, full-length dress and swath of gray on her otherwise completely auburn hair.

Being fleet of foot also is a handy way of avoiding being trapped by someone disgruntled and intent on giving an earful. And there is no shortage of people eager to do that these days to Howard County's director of planning and zoning.

Indeed, for 2 1/2 years McLaughlin unwittingly has been the principal figure in an unyielding and contentious debate over land use in land-starved Howard County, which seems certain to become the primary issue in next year's elections.

Although appointed to the $124,114-a-year position, McLaughlin ranks in the top tier of power and influence. She oversees a department that controls everything that is built in the county, from a simple addition to a house to a sprawling subdivision. A mere objection or recommendation from her and her department can scuttle multimillion-dollar deals and send developers back to the drawing board.

She also is among the first to be called by developers wishing to build with the fewest restrictions; residents hoping to block subdivisions in their neighborhoods; large property owners desiring to sell unfettered to builders for millions of dollars; and environmentalists hoping to stop growth and preserve all remaining land.

And when things do not go their way, they often blame McLaughlin -- personally.

"She seemed to be a sixth member of the Planning Board," says John Adolphsen, a member of a coalition opposing expansion of Maple Lawn, Maryland, a luxury mixed-use planned community. "She took a lot of time justifying the developer's case. I find that unconscionable."

That is mild, though, to criticism she has received since proposing, two months ago, further restrictions on development in western Howard.

Through it all, McLaughlin, has remained unruffled and resolute. "I try to look at it philosophically," she says. "If we need to fine-tune the strategy, then hopefully they don't shoot the messenger."

Her composure in the face of inexorable scrutiny comes from more than an ability to be philosophical. McLaughlin says she has acquired "balance" -- a characteristic learned years ago from her father. Indeed, while a storm of protest swirls around her, McLaughlin's biggest worry these days is sending the elder of two daughters to college in Massachusetts.

"She's my baby," says McLaughlin, who looks considerably younger than her 57 years. "You want them to grow up, and it's exciting to see them kind of unfolding. But you know as they get to be more independent, they call Mom less."

Being in the eye of the storm is the antithesis of McLaughlin's upbringing.

She was born Marsha Lynn Smith on Aug. 15, 1948, the second of three children to Paul and Alta Chipps Smith.

Her father was a research chemist for what ultimately became ExxonMobil Corp., and her mother cared for the children and home.

The family lived in Westfield, N.J., a bedroom community for New York, spending summers in their cottage near Cape May, and taking trips to Lakeside, Ohio, a resort offering views of Lake Erie and where the Victorian homes have remained unchanged for more than a century.

Her mother enjoyed decorating and antiques, and the Smith home "kind of looked like Better Homes and Gardens," McLaughlin says.

Three events during her childhood would later serve McLaughlin well.

The first occurred when she was about 7 years old and the family moved overseas for a year when her father was transferred to England.

She also discovered that she moved easily between different kinds of people with vastly different interests.

And she found herself migrating toward math and science. "I liked them because they were black and white and because it was problem-solving," she says. "There's a certain logic to it."

McLaughlin graduated from high school in 1966 and enrolled at Duke University, as her father was transferred again to Europe. She took economics and accounting courses at Duke, but quickly decided to major in art history, though she acknowledges, "I wasn't particularly thoughtful about what I would do to be employed."

The holiday visits to Europe, summers there and studying abroad in her junior year, changed her profoundly.

"You see a different reality," she says. "If you grow up only in New Jersey, the world looks like New Jersey. Then you go overseas and say, `This is a lot better looking than New Jersey. Why are they different?' ... A McDonald's on the strip highway is the same everywhere. France is different from Italy. You don't see that here."

Other changes, especially between her sophomore and senior years in college, changed her deeply. She witnessed the Vietnam-era student protests in Paris, then in the United States on her return.

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