Rutter rarely shunned a clash

Departing Arundel planning chief called `a law unto himself'

some see him as fair, efficient

November 08, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Joseph W. Rutter Jr. can be blunt.

When Annapolis-area activists complained to Anne Arundel County's planning director about a proposed $400 million redevelopment of rundown Parole Plaza, he said: "If there's a few extra stop signs, get over it."

When his subordinates have stumbled in testifying before the County Council, he has put his hand over the microphone and taken over.

One councilwoman has referred to Rutter as "a law unto himself."

As Rutter prepares to step down next month after nearly four years, he will be remembered as perhaps the most controversial and antagonistic figure in the Owens administration.

"He has been a good steward for Anne Arundel County, although many people have argued with that," said County Executive Janet S. Owens, who is leaving office next month after completing her second term.

Since she wooed Rutter from Howard County, where he served in the Planning Department for 36 years, he has reorganized the Planning and Zoning Office, overhauled the land-use laws and personally reviewed and approved the Parole Plaza project.

Unlike his predecessors, Rutter reported directly to the county executive. County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, who repeatedly and publicly clashed with Rutter over growth issues, has accused him of not complying with county rules that limit development based on school capacity and withholding pertinent details about the Parole project.

"He was appointed to the office to carry out the desires of the boss," Samorajczyk said. "If you can judge it by the administration being pleased, very pleased, it appears so."

She and Owens regularly battled over growth issues, and many of those conflicts played out in the County Council chambers between Samorajczyk and Rutter.

"In fairness to Barbara, she is not a team player," Rutter said. "There was so much to be done. I had to make a conscious decision to bypass one person who was going to be an obstructionist to the process."

Samorajczyk and other activists accused him of closing the public out of the review process, but he has been credited with several major accomplishments. Rutter oversaw the first major revision of land-use laws in three decades, which established requirements for open space in residential developments and preserved rural land. He helped redraft county Critical Area laws that increased fines on violators and played a key role in preparing the county for a huge military expansion around Fort Meade.

Developers noted that Rutter did not always give them what they wanted.

"He's fair. He will listen. He handled his staff well," said Stephen P. McAllister, a Charles County developer who is planning a 1,200-home development in Brooklyn Park.

Developers and lawmakers also praised Rutter's effort to make the planning department more efficient. They appreciated his adherence to the rules and for cutting through red tape.

"Sometimes you need an umpire who gave you an answer," said John S. Pantelides, who runs a real estate consulting firm in Annapolis. "[Rutter] told you an answer, whether you liked it or not. You didn't have to waste a lot of time, once you got in front of him."

But for most projects, the reforms have had little practical effect, developers said, because the department lacks enough planners to review the thousands of proposals they receive each year, from residential subdivisions to simple house additions and decks.

Rutter said that while he understands why he is criticized, he believes many of the attacks reflect a misunderstanding about his job. If a property is zoned to accommodate an unpopular yet legally appropriate development, he said, there is not a lot he or anyone else can do to stop it.

"People blame me or blame the executive for a project they don't like. ... They don't realize the zoning was put in place years ago. It's not what Joe Rutter likes this week. It's not like that."

Rutter, though, has been criticized for approving building on roads that are over capacity. For example, 15 projects have been approved near the Route 3 corridor between Gambrills and Crofton -- despite overcrowding on the state highway. The congestion has infuriated residents to the point of calling for a temporary building ban on Route 3 until improvements to the highway are made.

Rutter, who turns 60 next month, said he is looking to finish up his career in the private sector, advising on large development projects across Maryland.

He said the Board of Education and the next county executive and County Council will have to address several serious infrastructure needs under the constraints of the tax cap. That means meat-and-potatoes projects such as rebuilding water and sewer lines -- not opening public pools and parks.

Rutter said he has mixed feelings about the direction the county will take regarding growth.

Anne Arundel, "had a reputation in the region for being very `good old boy,'" he said. "I came here to challenge that. While there were some accomplishments, I am afraid that it's going to get back to the good-old-boy way."

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