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Ex-planning chief is back

The Baltimore Sun

As Anne Arundel officials delve into the once-a-decade revamping of the county's growth plan, a familiar and controversial face in development circles has been hired as a consultant - former planning officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr.

County officials confirmed last week that Rutter, now an executive with a Howard County development company, has been subcontracted by Bethesda-based planning consultant TischlerBise to help measure how future growth would financially impact county resources, from police officers and zoning inspectors to schools and roads.

Seen in some circles as a divisive figure in the county, Rutter stepped down as Anne Arundel's director of planning in December after four years serving County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat. He oversaw the first rewrite of county land-use laws in three decades and approved the $400 million Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole.

County officials said they were notified months ago that Rutter would serve in a subcontracting role if TischlerBise were selected to produce the fiscal impact analysis for the county's General Development Plan. Rutter received a waiver in April from the county's ethics commission that gave him permission to work for the county.

"We were not suddenly shocked that he was coming," said Carole L. Sanner, assistant planning officer.

County Executive John R. Leopold, however, said he learned of Rutter's involvement in the county's General Development Plan after a Sun reporter on Friday requested his comment.

After consulting with current Planning Director Larry Tom, the Republican said in an interview that Rutter will have no direct contact with county planning officials and "no impact whatsoever on public policy."

Betsy R. Dawson, executive director of the county's ethics commission, said the ethics policy restricts former county employees from going to work on the same matter they have significantly participated in. She said waivers are available if their work "will not adversely affect the county."

With the Leopold administration already facing criticism over moves to limit public comment on the development plan, some council members and critics said Rutter working for the county creates an unnecessary distraction and fuels fears about growth proposals being drawn up behind closed doors.

"There will always be a perception that when a prior planning director goes to work for the development community, his allegiance would go to the people he currently represents," said County Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. "I can see how the public would be concerned about that."

Vitale said she considered the matter of Rutter working for the county "to be a very gray area."

"My sense was that the Leopold administration wanted to move past the Rutter years," said Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat. "So if Mr. Rutter is involved in the General Development Plan, it certainly creates the perception that he's calling some of the shots."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, said that several council members are looking at proposing ethics legislation to stop "this sort of thing from happening in the county." He said it would regard how former employees are allowed to conduct business for the county government but declined to elaborate.

Last month, community activists filed an ethics complaint against Rutter, now a principal for Land Design & Development Inc., alleging that his involvement in petitions for county zoning approvals constituted a violation, The Capital reported.

In September, Rutter attended a fundraiser in Baltimore for Leopold in which roughly two dozen guests, mostly developers, contributed the state maximum of $4,000 apiece to Leopold.

The county signed off on the $204,000 contract to TischlerBise in June. That firm beat out three others with its bid, and it began work during the late summer, said Bill Schull, the county's purchasing agent.

TischlerBise was hired to determine the impact of current development on county facilities, such as police and fire response times and school capacity, then measure that impact over time, given growth and building projections.

Rutter did not return a phone call on Friday seeking comment. Nor did Paul Tischler or L. Carson Bise II, president and vice president respectively for TischlerBise.

Civic groups have formed a coalition out of concern that the Leopold administration may drastically limit public comment on the General Development Plan. Facing pressure to complete that plan to clear the way for billions of dollars of development mostly around Fort Meade and BWI-Marshall Airport, the administration has abolished the "small-area" planning committees that allowed for abundant public comment a decade ago - but dragged out the review process by years.

The Leopold administration began its review of the growth plan in June. It has set an ambitious goal of revising it by January 2009.

Leopold said his administration is "trying to strike the right balance after going through an exhaustive small-area process. The [need] to expedite the plan for the tidal wave of growth is fast approaching the county because of the creation of BRAC. ... I will make sure that citizens are given the maximum possible opportunity to participate."


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