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Philip David Fields, former director of the Baltimore County Office of Planning and world traveler, dies

Philip David Fields
Philip David Fields (handout)

As the director of Baltimore County’s Office of Planning, Philip David Fields regularly interacted with top executives of development firms, local and state legislators, and members of community and civic associations. And he did so without wearing a suit or tie, preferring a button-down shirt and a pair of slacks.

“He was just a casual guy, and I think that made him very approachable,” son Eran Fields said. “He was just very understated. … I think I saw him in a suit a few times in my life, and he always looked uncomfortable in them.”

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Mr. Fields, who also served as director of the county’s Office of Community Conservation, died June 17 at an assisted living facility in Los Angeles due to dementia. He was 84.

Former Baltimore County Executive and current U.S. representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who created the Office of Community Conservation in 1995 and then tapped Mr. Fields to head it, said Mr. Fields was a crucial figure in the county’s growth.

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“I got to know David when I was on the Baltimore County Council and we were going through the rezoning process – I had 345 zoning decisions to rule on and David worked with me on each case,” Mr. Ruppersberger said in a written statement. “There was no question I would keep him on when I was elected County Executive [in 1994] as Director of Planning. He was smart, had strong people skills and, most importantly, was a man of integrity. He also had a great sense of humor and I loved his British accent. It’s not just me who respected David – he had a reputation as a visionary across the state of Maryland in the field of planning. He really cared about the environment and embraced the concept of sustainability long before it was a buzz word.”

The only child of Victor Bernard Fields, a retail manager, and the former Rachel Cussin, a seamstress and homemaker, Mr. Fields – who preferred to be called by his middle name – was born and raised in Leeds, England, played rugby, and joined the Habonim, a Jewish youth group. Between serving in the British and Israeli armies, he graduated from the University of Leeds with a bachelor’s in liberal arts in 1960 and a master’s in urban planning in 1964.

After marrying the former Meira Gellei in 1960 in Haifa, Israel, three months after meeting her on a train from Paris to Marseille and then on a boat from France to Israel, Mr. Fields worked as a planner in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and then as planning director of Jerusalem, Israel under Mayor Teddy Kollek.

In 1981, Mr. and Mrs. Fields moved the family to Washington, D.C. While Mrs. Fields worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mr. Fields worked for the Baltimore County Office of Planning for one year. After another year in Jerusalem, Mr. Fields returned to Baltimore County in 1983 and was appointed director within three months.

“That will give you an idea of how powerful and how well-respected he was,” friend and fellow planner Jack Dillon said. “County Executive [Donald P.] Hutchinson recognized his capabilities.”

Mr. Fields had a direct hand in formulating the 1990-2000 Master Plan, a detailed guide to developing the county. Mr. Dillon, who called the Master Plan “the best … we’ve ever produced,” said Mr. Fields went out of his way to invite members of community associations to visit his office on evenings and weekends to add their input.

Previous planning directors “would probably invite people to come in,” Mr. Dillon said. “But getting them to come in and actually do it is another testament to his ability to deal with people. Some communities will say, ‘Yeah, I’ll help,’ and send in some comments, and it would just be perfunctory. This was a real effort and a real involvement of the people in the Master Plan.”

When Mr. Fields transitioned to Community Conservation, he sought to improve neighborhoods by adding trees or paving roads and sidewalks. Mr. Dillon said Mr. Fields was particularly instrumental in converting a pair of squalid, crime-ridden apartment complexes in Essex into a park and a community of upscale single-family homes.

Mr. Dillon said Mr. Fields had a way of connecting with his audience.

“He would have a way of pulling in what I called his parables where he would give an example of something that happened in Jerusalem and how it related to whatever the issue was that we were dealing with in Baltimore County,” he said. “It was just a unique way of how to describe a problem and how to solve a problem.”

Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka, who credited Mr. Fields with teaching him the importance of engaging the community, vouched for his popularity.

“I was always impressed how David could generate applause simply by walking into a community meeting,” Mr. Patoka said in a written statement. “It speaks to the tremendous respect that he had with the communities in all of Baltimore County.”

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Mr. Fields said his father turned down several opportunities to join the private sector because of his belief in community planning.

“He was really driven by doing the right thing, creating communities that were livable and providing opportunities for people and making sure that they were fair,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “It was never about anything other than that. It was about smart and fair planning, addressing issues and problems, and trying to make things better.”

Mr. Fields enjoyed gardening, listening to classical music, painting, and, especially, traveling. His son recalled road trips with his family and several others to a resort town in the Sinai Peninsula called Sharm el Sheikh and then to a kibbutz, a collective community built around agriculture, in the northern regions of Israel.

“My memories of him are of being surrounded by his close friends, some that have remained friends with him since he was five or six years old and just enjoying life, sitting, talking, discussing politics, human rights, the arts, soccer, laughing, and having fun,” he said. “Until my mom got sick, he had a truly wonderful life like that.”

Mr. Fields, whose mother died of glioblastoma in 2014, described his father as a “hands off” parent.

“He never imposed anything on us,” he said. “He was there to answer any questions and offer advice, but let us pursue whatever we wanted to without any concern, which is nice. I hear people complain all the time that their parents pushed them to do this or do that. For us, it was quite the opposite. They just let us do our own thing. But what was always important to my parents was just making sure that we were ethical, we treated people well, and that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.”

A funeral for Mr. Fields took place June 29 in Los Angeles. He was buried at Mount Sinai Simi Valley.

In addition to his son, Mr. Fields is survived by sons, Jonathan Fields of Cleveland, Doron Fields of Athens, Greece, and six grandchildren.

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