New county planning chief says he's ready to bring change


New in town and new to the job, Anne Arundel County Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. had a puzzling moment recently when asked about the "bog people."

"Who are they?" asked Rutter, who never dealt with bogs - or the residents who have pushed successfully to protect them from development - in his last job in Howard County. "The name sounds more like a Saturday night movie special."

Such humorous moments have helped lighten the load for the former Howard County planning chief, who has spent long days learning about Anne Arundel's unique planning issues since taking over Jan. 17.

"It's hellacious just trying to figure out what meetings to attend," said Rutter, 56. "But the staff has been very helpful. There are some real experts here."

Rutter - who has been described by those who knew him in Howard County as part charmer, part tyrant - said he would tap those experts to update the county's zoning code.

In an interview with The Sun last week, Rutter said the project, which has had many false starts over the years, is near the top of his to-do list.

"The zoning regulations are woefully out of date," he said.

For example: Developers who want to build housing for the elderly are puzzled by an archaic code that makes no mention of assisted-care facilities or age-restricted housing.

"It's not clear how those types of facilities are permitted," Rutter said.

Land Use Officer Robert L. Walker said he is confident the new chief will complete the job of modernizing the code. "Until we do that in a very comprehensive way, it will continue to impede and hinder the kind of operation we would like to have," Walker said.

Adjusting to change

Walker said some staff members have been surprised at the way Rutter runs the office - for instance, he sent them an e-mail in which he explained that he expects them to return phone calls and respond to e-mails from builders and the public within 24 hours, no matter what. But Walker said they seem energized by Rutter's strong leadership in the $110,000-a-year job.

Rutter has already hired an assistant planning officer.

When he learned that chief engineer Merril E. Plait, who helped rewrite the county's storm water management regulations, was about to take a job in Baltimore, Rutter offered Plait the No. 2 job. Plait canceled his farewell party and is now acting assistant planning and zoning officer, a position that he is expected to take on permanently.

Rutter - who says he likes to be his own boss and run his own show - also is concerned about the county's small-area planning process, which was begun by former County Executive John G. Gary nearly eight years ago as part of comprehensive rezoning.

The eight small area plans adopted by the County Council so far should be implemented immediately, Rutter said. "We shouldn't lose a month," he said. "It's got to be frustrating for residents to ... see no immediate implementation."

Howard experience

Rutter, who worked in the Howard County planning and zoning office for 26 years, 12 of them as director, said he won't re-create Howard County's management structure in Anne Arundel County, but could adapt several successful programs for use by his new staff and local residents.

"Howard County is ahead of Anne Arundel County in terms of databases and public contact via the Internet," he said.

In Howard County, residents can use a home computer to access the county Web site, type in an address and review neighboring development projects.

"That way residents can access information at 8 p.m. on a Sunday or whenever they see a bulldozer," he said.

Rutter said he is studying the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law, which protects coastal areas from overdevelopment, because in Howard County he didn't need to know it. Anne Arundel County, by contrast, has 500 miles of waterfront land.

Rutter, who has yet to meet with council members but hopes to do so soon, said he wants to work with elected officials who make the policy decisions that dictate land use, including water and sewer extensions and commercial and residential growth.

He said planning directors often get saddled with the blame unfairly.

"I do things because the law says so," Rutter said in an interview with The Sun in December shortly after it was announced that County Executive Janet S. Owens, who courted Rutter for years, finally had persuaded him to join her team.

Elected officials clashed with former Planning Officer Denis Canavan, who has accepted a lower-profile position within the same department. Some of them accused Canavan and his staff of giving them incomplete information, and advocating for projects supported by Owens.

County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale said she is eager to meet and work with Rutter.

"I really hope he'll take care of the planning process so we hear less from people who have been stymied along the way," said Vitale, a Republican from Severna Park.

Of the county's zoning code, she said: "It is time for an overhaul."

Rutter said he expects to spend the rest of his professional career straightening out the county's planning and zoning office - an office that has earned a statewide reputation among builders for being bureaucratic and sluggish.

"I felt like it was time to take on a challenge and do something new," said Rutter of his decision to leave Howard County, a place he still calls home. "Anne Arundel County has so much to offer."

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