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Interview with Keith Megginson, Chatham County planning director

Posted Wednesday, September 14, 2005

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Pittsboro, NC - Good morning, this is Gene Galin with the Chatham Journal and I’m here with Keith Megginson at the planning department in Pittsboro. I’m going to have a quick 30-minute discussion with him on some things going on with the planning department. Some folks on the chatlist have submitted questions, I’ve got them in front of me and Keith has them. Let’s start out Keith by having you explain what folks can find on the Chatham County planning dept website, what will they find most helpful, what other improvements you have planned.

Keith: The website has been greatly updated since we hired Jason Sullivan who’s a planner up in Graham. Jason’s done a lot of work on that. It really depends on what perspective people are coming from, what they will find of interest on that site. Our regulations are there so anyone wanting to know specifics – we’ve got 11 land use ordinances from flood plain to watershed, zoning, subdivision, mobile home ordinance, sign ordinance, all those different ordinances are there so anyone looking for specifics can go there to find that. We’ve got information about various current topics, whether it’s the 10/70 rule that’s being considered as an amendment to the water supply watershed regulation, whether it’s Cary proposing to annex additional land that developers have asked to be annexed in Chatham County. Our issue that comes up concerning change sin our flood maps that FEMA is coordinating, issues on changing regulations concerning stream buffers, changes to watershed regs in the Rocky River north of Siler City, conditional zoning is another item that’s posted there if people want to know about changes to our zoning procedure. Those are a number of things that either are there or will be.

Gene: I think most people have had very favorable comments that you can find a lot of information there. What other improvements are you planning or would you like to see in the future on your site?

Keith: As I mentioned mainly, we’ve got one section questions & answers, as we anticipate questions that may come up on various topics we’ll post those there.

Gene: Your site is updated how often?

Keith: it’s not on a regular interval, when we see it’s time to put additional information up we’ll do it then.

Gene: And that includes minutes and agenda of the planning board meetings.

Keith. Right. Anyone wanting to follow a specific issue, development or zoning request, we’ve got those up there so you can see whether an item has been submitted, whether it’s at the planning board level, whether it’s at the commissioner’s level, what attachments there are with the specific application, as well as what actions a particular board has taken on it.

Gene: So a person can not only find that information but they can also find the attachments that relate to the particular issues.

Keith: The attachments and our notes to the boards about those issues, our recommendations about those issues.

Gene: OK. A couple of things that you mention folks are interested in and I think you’ve touched on already is the conditional zoning as well as the 10/70 rule. Let’s go ahead and jump into it.

Keith: Let’s go into conditional zoning.

Gene: Why don’t you give us some information on what conditional zoning means to the county and let’s start out with that.

Keith: Well, conditional zoning is used in a number of jurisdictions now, there was a question originally of whether It was even legal or not but Charlotte has waded through that. They proposed it and it was challenged in a number of lawsuits but they prevailed, and now the legislature has actually included it in the planning legislation that you can do it, so there’s not a question of its legality any more. Those who are familiar with zoning law would probably describe it as legal contract zoning. It used to not be legal. But it gives additional citizen input, if the procedure that we’re looking at is adopted, and it simplifies the method in which input is given. Right now we have straight zoning districts: general business districts or industrial districts or what have you, and then we have conditional use districts with conditional use permits attached to them. What most developers have applied for is a conditional use district with a permit. So they come in and say “we want this conditional use business district and we want it specifically for these three or four businesses,” and the commissioners can then set specific conditions for these businesses with the site plan. So the neighbors can say, “My house is only 30 feet away, we’d really appreciate it if you could have a bigger buffer or this kind of screening or what have you.” The commissioners can do that under conditional use permitting but they can’t do it under a regular straight business change. Under conditional use permitting the board of county commissioners has to make five findings and it has to be based on fact. Typically at our public hearings the information given by the applicant and by citizens for and against the request is given under oath or affirmation. They swear or affirm that the information they give is true or accurate or correct. It can get into “your professional said this,” and “your professional said that,” and what are the credentials of these folks, and this that and the other. Citizens often find that complicated and possibly expensive and they may not have enough time to go out and find out about the request or hire a professional to assess it. Under conditional zoning the five findings of fact do not have to be made, it’s as much what people’s opinions are as the facts. You still get facts, and things are based on facts, but it’s also o people’s opinions and commisisoners’ opinions about what the change may entail.

Gene: Do folks get additional lead time with conditional zoning?

Keith: Right, right now we’ve been talking at the planning board level that there would be a meeting that the developer would have with neighbors or adjacent landowners prior to even submitting a request to us. There are several benefits to that: one, it would let neighbors know very early on that something is being considered in their area. If the meetings are held (and we haven’t worked out all the details about how the meetings will be set up) – if they are to be beneficial at all, one the developer would know very early on whether even to proceed with the project. If they go out there and have one of these meetings and everyone is totally against it, that gives them the opportunity to decide whether to proceed to apply, to finish up the application and submit it to be considered, or whether they want to say “there is no way this is ever going to fly,” there’s nothing we can modify here and modify there and it will look like a good thing, it’s just totally unacceptable to the community at this time.

Gene: Let me interrupt for a second, at this stage what is the planning department’s involvement? This is where the developer is going out and meeting with the citizens.

Keith: Right, our involvement up to that point would be telling to the applicant or developer what is the format that these meetings have to take. What information they have to have available at the meeting, who they have to invite, what kind of record they have to provide for us that they’ve actually had one of these meetings, how many days before the application period they have to have it. But neither the planning board nor the commissioners are involved in the actual meeting itself.

Gene: OK, so after the meeting takes place the developer or applicant will be required to give you some information from the meeting. At that point you basically provide them with guidelines of what is to go on at the meeting and how it is to be run.

Keith: Correct. We haven’t worked out all the details of this, there are a number of cities that are doing this and counties that are doing it, and other counties that are considering it. Lee County is doing it, Burke County is doing it, I think there are three other counties that are considering it. Each one does it a little differently. When the citizens meeting by the developer is held it can vary. Some places have it after the application period but before the public hearing. As I mentioned, we’re considering having it before they even submit anything to us. That’s the gist of it, you have this citizens meeting that the developer coordinates, they bring the information about it to us, we go over their application to see if it’s complete, we then schedule it for the next regular public hearing that the commissioners and planning board would have, then the process would start similar to our process that we have now. It will go to a public hearing, then the staff has the opportunity to give their input, it goes on to the planning board for their consideration and recommendation, and then to the commissioners. None of this is set in stone right now. We’re looking for various options – we’re a pretty limited staff right here, so we’re looking at our schedule, the commissioner’s schedule, the planning board schedule, if things are stretched out a little bit whether we would have applications scheduled at one stage when we then receive others at another stage and how that might affect our work load.

Gene: The question too is on the conditional zoning procedure, is that going to apply to all development applications or just to certain development applications?

Keith: It would be the applicant’s request or their choice whether they would apply under conditional zoning or whether they would choose to go through straight business district, say I want you to consider this for B-1 business and the commissioners consider any and all of the permitted businesses that are there. There are about four pages of different businesses in our straight business district. If they chose to go with the conditional zoning then we’d go through the process.

Gene: So the big benefits that I hear is that it provides additional citizen input and also simplifies the application procedure for the developer, is that right?

Keith: Correct. Technically it goes from a conditional use district with a conditional use permit, which is a quasi-judicial, meaning it’s like a court situation, back to a legislative decision where it’s more opinion and commissioners looking at whether things are under our land development conservation plan to meet those general guidelines, whether almost a court-like situation.

Gene: You mentioned I think at a recent meeting up at Dockside that citizens could provide input not only at the meetings but they could also send in their input as well?

Keith: Right, citizens have always been able to send in input and the commissioners consider it, but here again under a quasi-judicial proceeding the board is supposed to make sure that adequate information is in the record that is submitted during the public hearing process to either approve a request or deny a request. Technically they’re not supposed to consider facts given outside that format. It’s called “ex parte communication” and they’re supposed to refrain from that. Typically citizens don’t know those rules so they call the commissioners and give them information, and after you’ve been told this stuff you can’t just totally disregard it in your decision-making process. So this opens that up a little bit more. We still need to look at the sequence of events and set a time period of which, that’s it, the record’s closed. Technically we’re not going to consider any more. So somebody brings in something five minutes before the commissioners make a decision, it’s really not fair to everyone else such as the planning board not having that information.

Gene: Anything else on conditional zoning before we move on to the 10/70 rule?

Keith: There has been an issue brought up of what about the larger public; when will they be brought in? Can they attend this citizens meeting that the developer coordinates? I don’t know right now, we haven’t made this recommendation yet to the planning board. Generally our thoughts right now are no. This would be a meeting for the immediate community and the neighbors and the developers to address those issues; those citizens at large or citizens groups out there that have concerns about the development of the county—their time would be at the public hearing that we have.

Gene: Ready to give us a bit of an explanation about the proposed 10/70 rule?

Keith. The 10/70 rule – some citizens are aware that the state came up with a format for protecting surface water supplies throughout the state. They provided different models of how you can do that. You can do that through a high-density option or low-density option. They mean basically what they say. The county chose a low-density option which is less surface covered by impervious areas. Buildings, parking lots and roads that don’t allow water to infiltrate into the groundwater. So pollutants run off of impervious surfaces. With the low density option there’s a lower percentage of impervious coverage. For communities that chose the low-density option, the state says that since you’re developing at a very low density, you can have a small percentage of that area and develop it as a higher percentage. So if you have a shopping center development – you mentioned Dockside, we were up there the other evening. That development would not be allowed there, neither would Performance Bicycle and a number of other places in that area, if these rules were in effect at the time they were proposed to be developed. They exceed 36% of the area in buildings, parking lots and roads. This rule would allow those types of developments to be up to 70% of impervious surface. So that’s the general idea. A number of our neighboring communities chose the high density model; they can do 70% everywhere, not just in this smaller 10% of the area. So their whole watershed area that’s not in a critical area near your intake (I know this is getting a little complicated) – Orange County, Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, all chose a high density option. So they’re doing that now –They have specific rules themselves, but they can take their land and develop it at higher percentages. Siler City has a 10/70 rule in their ordinance. A number of jurisdictions either chose high density, because they wanted to allow higher impervious surface in specific areas, but the county did not. We didn’t see we would have a need for it years ago when the rules were proposed, so we didn’t adopt it at that time. The commissioners at the time it was brought up didn’t feel they were in a position of how to allocate it – would it be on a first come first serve basis, or whether they would designate an area to develop for industrial or business use. So here are a few areas where the 10/70 rule could apply.

Gene: Boiling it down to specifics, what are the general benefits to the county and drawbacks to the county of applying the 10/70 rule?

Keith: The benefits are that we can get some higher impervious surface areas without sprawl. Folks have mentioned the UNC Park & Ride lot, the number of spaces that they provide at the corner of Old Lystra Road and 15-501, they can’t put in there right now without exceeding our 36% impervious coverage area. The county sought a convenience center as they’re called; they’re typically pretty close to exceeding the 36% impervious coverage. I’ve mentioned the shopping centers that are up there now in that area, they exceed 36%. Performance Bicycle which is a business development up there, they exceed the 36%. And those are pretty concentrated in one area. So they could be there under the 10/70 rule but if they were proposed to be there without that they would be spread out over more area. Just because the county may allow this to happen doesn’t mean it’s going to damage the surface water, because along with allowing the higher impervious surface typically storm water management practices are required, either catch basins or various other things to prevent your polluted water coming off these surfaces from reaching your surface water.

Gene: You briefly mentioned the Park & Ride that UNC built – what are Chatham County’s plans for Park & Ride lots in the future, or what has gone up previously?

Keith: A number of years ago, over five years ago, we talked about bus services, we being the planning board and the county commissioners. We checked with Chapel Hill about the cost of providing a bus into Chatham County, we were talking about the Fearrington area, farther down from where UNC is looking to put it. At the time, Chapel Hill, from my recollection, said “we could provide you a bus if you’ve got a lot to send it to at $100,000 a year.” The commissioners at that time weren’t willing to put that money into the budget as a regular budget item. We didn’t know what the demand would be, how much it would be used. It just didn’t seem to be appropriate at that time. So there have been discussions about it, this as you said is as UNC lot, it will be used, as I understand from talking to people at UNC, by people with a parking sticker at the university, and then it would be for weekend activities such as ball games and what have you. So it would reduce the number of highway trips from Chatham County into Chapel Hill, therefore reduce pollution as well and general congestion.

Gene: So it would be used by UNC employees during the week and for let’s say a Carolina football game that might be a park and ride lot into the game.

Keith: Both staff and students, as I understand. Anyone who has a parking sticker. I’m not familiar with their parking sticker arrangement, because it’s students as well. The other time the county looked at bus service came up with the Briar Chapel development. The conditional use permit for Briar Chapel which is on the county’s website addresses their bus facilities, and what they’re doing is their street layout will be such that there will be bus pull-off areas where there will be a bus shelter or whatever. People from that community can go there and catch the bus to Chapel Hill or wherever the buses are going at the time that’s developed. They also said that they would have a portion of their office and business parking lots, they’ll have additional parking over what’s required to meet the minimum in those facilities, in those parking lots so people could go there and park and catch a bus and go into town. But here again, that’s dependent on the county working out something with Chapel Hill transit for buses to go there.

Gene: You mention Briar Chapel; we had a question from a chatlist member who wanted to know when is it actually slated to break ground and start?

Keith: That’s dependent on a number of factors, partly how soon they can get various state and federal permits. They’re working on those now, they’ve had archaeologists out there to do a survey of the property, they’re working with the Corps of Engineers on their stream crossings permits, mitigation areas for that, I would think it would be next spring – they’re working to get their wastewater plant situated right now. Things will be happening internal to the property that are internal, that many people wouldn’t see. It will be six months or more.

Gene: This question was not on the list but somebody had asked it, and you may not know the answer. When is 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro expected to be finished?

Keith: I don’t know, the Department of Transportation could better tell you that.

Gene: The other question too concerning 15-501 that somebody brought up is about implementing some sort of appearance ordinance for 15-501 so that it doesn’t end up looking like Asheboro. Any comments or thoughts on that?

Keith: As I mentioned, we have a fairly small staff of five people in our planning department total. We have many willing citizens as you know who are interested – they have energy, they have time to address various issues. If people are concerned about these sorts of things and talking about committees – we have an appearance committee in the county now, they look at the development proposals that we have going through the zoning process. They look at every proposal that comes up based on the appearance guidelines that we have. So hopefully that type of committee that we now have in place would help it from looking like this strip commercial wall to wall development. As long as we have that committee in place I don’t think it’s going to look like Asheboro. Some people may think Asheboro looks good because they can see things very easily, and others think it’s cluttered because of all the signs and what have you.

Gene: We’re actually getting down to the last five or six minutes so we’re not going to get to all of them, and then we’ll have a closing statement with Keith.

In your opinion, what kind of citizen input can have an input on developer’s permit process? I think you touched on some of them, but overall, what can a citizen do or how can a citizen provide input into the process?

Keith: We have a little brochure here at the office about effective ways to provide input, general rules to follow. Some of those are being very specific about what you say, having facts, being concise in your presentation. Those are a few of the main things.

Gene: I have two last questions: In your opinion what will Chatham County look like ten years from now? (You don’t have to answer that one if you don’t want to), and the last one is, how do you see the planning department’s role unfolding over the next five or ten years? There’s a lot of growth going on, what kinds of things would you like to see happen in the department and in the committee?

Keith: Within the department and within the county – the county has such unique resources to be an asset: our rivers, Jordan Lake, the various plants and animals that are here, and that’s partly why people come here. Not just for the general rural atmosphere, but for specific things. Trying to preserve those things – working with citizens’ groups, the Ag advisory council, to address those things that are unique to Chatham County. So us playing a bigger role in that – I’ve mentioned some of the regulations we have that address those things, stream buffers and what have you. Flood regulations – we don’t allow people to build in the floodable areas at all. We don’t just say you can’t build your house where the flood’s going to be, we say you can’t build there at all. So we have various regulatory things to address these issues. You know the sediment and erosion control that the state runs now is probably being taken over this year by the county. So education about these specific things, us playing a bigger role in that. We’re doing some of that now, but I’d like to us to take more of a role.

In terms of what the county will look like in ten years, it’s going to continue to be more urban. The things that attracted the people who are already here, those things are still here and it’s going to attract more people. Traffic unfortunately will be more crowded between here and Chapel Hill. That was set in place back in 1997 when we started working on the Land Development Plan, and it recommended compact communities in that corridor, so that’s going to impact the traffic. But I think there will still be the unique resources, and many of them will be protected. So I’m hoping the county can develop in a way that the resources are protected and can still be enjoyed by the citizens, and yet it can be an attractive place for folks to live as well.

Gene: One last question – what do you see as being your biggest challenge for 2006 and what are some of the things you’re looking forward to this coming year?

Keith: There’s a number of issues we’re looking at about our watershed regulations; I mentioned the Rocky River, we’re looking at changes to a number of regulations concerning that, addressing the 10/70 rule and having some resolution about that, we’re looking to go back to the planning board’s recommendations for enlarging our stream buffers in our reservoir areas such as University Lake, Jordan Lake and the Rocky River. That will definitely be addressed. And the conditional zoning. We’re also having to change our regulations because of changes in the flood maps. Those are our big regulatory things that we’ll be addressing this year.

Gene: I appreciate Keith taking the time to talk to us, this will be put up on the website. Maybe we’ll do this again with Keith and hopefully make this a regular feature, so Keith thank you again this morning.

Keith: Thank you Gene.

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