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Opportunity And Challenge Entice New Planning Director

Blending old and new with changing demographics is the trick.

She has degrees in English and Landscape Architecture. She has taught in the Watts section of Los Angles and done backyard landscape design in affluent neighborhoods. She has advised developers how to make their projects attractive and told them what they can and cannot do. And, she guided an urban planning board out of a very difficult administrative situation.

Each of these factors has played a significant role in shaping the viewpoints, insights, goals and vision of Farroll Hamer. On April 23 she will assume the role of Alexandria's new director of Planning and Zoning. That promises to open a whole new chapter and set of challenges in her very diverse professional life.

Beating out 36 other candidates for the $136,000 a year position, Hamer brings one of the most varied backgrounds in recent years to the challenge of guiding Alexandria's changing landscape -- in terms of land use, population, and conflicting interests within the City's public and private power structure.

A graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., with a degree in English, Hamer taught in various area of the nation upon graduation. "I really didn't know what I wanted to do after college so I had various teaching jobs for several years. One of those was in Watts," she said.

"Then I got interested in landscape architecture so I enrolled in Georgetown for a non-degree course. After that I got serious about the field and enrolled in Morgan State in Baltimore where I got my master's and went to work in the private sector," Hamer explained.

"I did a number of jobs at private homes but I soon realized that you can only do so much with backyard patios and residential landscapes. I also became aware that you can give developers your best advise but they are free to ignore it because they are paying for it," she said. "That's when I decided to go to work in the public sector."

Her first job in that arena was in the Prince Georges County Planning Department doing development reviews. "Developers seem to pay a lot more attention to you when you are on the other side of the fence. But, in both Prince Georges and Montgomery counties they always told me I deal with them fairly and straight," Hamer said.

Hamer remained with Prince Georges County from 1987 to 2005 becoming Chief of Development Review, supervisor of the Urban Section, and serving as a planner in the Urban Design Section. Both Prince Georges and Montgomery counties' planning operations are under the same organizational umbrella -- the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

In December 2005 she became Montgomery County's acting planning director, a position she has held until accepting the Alexandria job. "Although both Montgomery and Prince Georges counties are under the same planning umbrella only the administrative procedures are the same. Everything else is different," she said.

Correcting some serious administrative problems was the primary reason she was asked to come to Montgomery County, according to Royce Hanson, chair, Montgomery County Planning Commission.

"She is a very dedicated person and she did a wonderful job for us at a very difficult time. She has worked assiduously to get the administration in order and get everything moving again," Hanson said.

HAMER SEES MANY similarities between Montgomery County planning challenges and those facing Alexandria. "Community groups are very involved with the planning process in both areas. And, both areas are experiencing both development and redevelopment," she said.

"Mostly what I see here is a great deal of opportunity and I intend to do a great deal of listening at the outset. Some of those opportunities that really intrigue me are the development of the waterfront, Potomac Yard, and the transition of the Landmark area," Hamer said.

"Alexandria is also recognized nationally among planners. In fact, when I was in Montgomery County we were often competing for the same people to fill positions. Usually Alexandria won. The City planning department's web site is nationally know as a model," she said.

"That's why when I saw the job was open I had to apply. I had been acting director in Montgomery County for 15 months when this opportunity came along," Hamer said.

In her new position she will oversee the department's three dozen plus employees and be responsible for a budget of $4.2 million. The Planning and Zoning Department encompasses not only the City Planning Commission but also the Board of Architectural Review and the Board of Zoning Appeals.

She will be interacting on a daily basis with those volunteer led boards, City Council, the Mayor, and a host of civic organizations that are intimately involved in every aspect of the City's planning and development process. Her appointment follows an extensive national search and selection process, which culminated in interviews with panels consisting of Alexandria residents and staff personnel, according to Alexandria City Manager James K. Hartmann.

"I am very pleased that the City of Alexandria could attract someone with Faroll Hamer's knowledge and expertise. She has outstanding credentials as a planner and has a vision to guide the organization towards continual improvement, collaborative relationships, and cutting-edge planning practices," Hartmann said.

A native of Montclair, N.J., Hamer is married to Jay Peterzell, a former Time magazine reporter/writer who now is a freelance fiction author. They live in Takoma Park, Md, and have a 13 year old son, Ivan, who is presently in the seventh grade.

"I am thrilled to have been selected as the new planning director. And, I would love to move to Alexandria but its probably best for us to wait until Ivan goes into Middle School," she said. "Jay can live anywhere, he has no commute. I'm the one with the commute."