When Joseph W. Rutter started with Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning in 1966, he was a 20-year-old who had graduated from Howard High School, done a semester of college and worked as an engineering technician for the state.

Then began his education as a planner. What he lacked in the discipline's formal schooling, he made up for with a work ethic that, 36 years later, still has him logging 12 hour days and shrugging off the thought of vacation.

Through the years, Rutter saw Columbia move from blueprints to a building boom. He saw growth transform the eastern half of Howard and repeatedly threaten its rural western reaches. With his ascent to department director in 1990, he moved to the forefront of those battles.

Now, the heady days big-scale projects in Howard are winding down as the county reaches capacity in some areas and development activity focuses more on spare lots in neighborhoods and faded urban corridors.

With planning to do, Rutter, 56, could coast. But instead he has decided to move to neighboring Anne Arundel, a county with nearly twice the population of Howard that is struggling with intense development pressures.

On Jan. 16, Rutter will say goodbye to his Howard staff, and the next day, he'll take over as director of Anne Arundel's Office of Planning and Zoning.

"I've had a full-time job since I was 14 years old," Rutter said. "I would go nuts if I wasn't working."

Rutter will head Anne Arundel's 240-member staff, which is about twice the size of Howard's, at a salary of $110,000, a step up from his Howard salary of $105,976. Since he's retiring from Howard, he'll also be drawing a pension.

Admirers and critics alike said over the years Rutter has acquired an encyclopedic grasp of Howard's development regulations.

Rob Moxley, a principal in Security Development LLC of Ellicott City and former chairman of the county's farmland preservation committee, said Rutter's knowledge allowed him to determinedly seek practical resolutions to issues.

"He wasn't reluctant to make a decision," Moxley said.

But not all the talk of Rutter's work has been complimentary. Some in Howard believe that decisions he has made helped give developers the upper hand in the county, and the rapid pace of building has resulted in crowded schools, clogged roads and the loss of historic properties.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County Inc., said an ideal planning and zoning director "can be a visionary for what's going to happen when you set the (development) limits and standards. I think Joe's a great administrator, a great legal technician, but we could have used a visionary."

Donna Mennitto, a former administrator of the county's agricultural preservation program, left the planning and zoning office six years ago after clashing repeatedly with Rutter.

"The development community loves him, and they love him for a good reason," said Mennitto, now a land protection planning consultant. "He has made life more predictable for them and more malleable for them."

For his part, Rutter said he has tried to develop a thick skin in dealing with critics, but he thinks he sometimes draws more than his share of flak.

"Joe Rutter has never adopted a (comprehensive) plan," he said, mentioning a responsibility of the County Council. "Joe Rutter has never set the policy on growth."

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County) said Rutter gets more scrutiny than most county officials.

"I think Joe Rutter was responsive. It's just that people weren't always happy with his response," Kittleman said.

Rutter knows he's heading for even rougher waters in Anne Arundel.

"We've grown in such an unwieldy way," County Executive Janet S. Owens said.

It is a county with environmentally sensitive lowlands bordering the Chesapeake Bay, older communities like Glen Burnie in need of redevelopment, massive development projects like Anne Arundel Mills and proud historic communities along the Severn River.

"It's very tricky stuff," Owens said, adding that the county's planning and zoning office lacks land databases that are routinely used in Howard. "We're playing catch-up over here."

Already, Rutter is mulling over the organizational structure in Anne Arundel, but he's also thinking back to a time long before he was a department administrator.

In the late 1970s, he was a community planner working with residents of Guilford, a small blue-collar settlement on the verge of being obliterated by highway construction. There were rounds of meetings at the First Baptist Church of Guilford as residents forged a plan to build a park and affordable housing and keep the community vibrant.

"That experience will help me," said Rutter.

The long hours that earned him a small plaque of appreciation from Guilford residents 22 years ago, he said, is one of his proudest accomplishments.

Retiring Howard County planning and zoning director Joe Rutter is jumping right back into the fire -- into the same job for Anne Arundel County, a larger county with more complex development needs.