On the Level: Land-use attorney Collin Brown is moving up representing developers in rezoning cases

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//December 28, 2012//

On the Level: Land-use attorney Collin Brown is moving up representing developers in rezoning cases

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//December 28, 2012//

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At 35, Charlotte land-use attorney Collin Brown is moving up, literally and figuratively.

First, the figuratively.

Collin Brown looks out over uptown Charlotte from the penthouse of the Hearst Tower. Photo by Tony Brown

As the Charlotte area comes to grips with development and density issues, you can often find Brown advocating for developers at public meetings, which are just as often packed with protesters.

In a Charlotte City Council meeting in December, Brown represented two of the area’s biggest commercial developers, Childress Klein Properties and Grubb Properties, on two large multifamily proposals. Both were approved, despite neighborhood protests on the Childress Klein project.

But another high-profile case, M/I Homes’ Avery Park — a single-family project that is slightly denser than some in the area — is still in limbo after it ran into static last fall from neighbors and the Huntersville town Board of Commissioners. It could take well into 2013 year to sort out.

Brown earned a law degree from Wake Forest University in 2003 and a master’s in land-use planning and economic development from Georgia State University in 2005. That was two years after he had started practicing law at one of Charlotte’s premier firms, Horack Talley, co-founded by Ben Horack, who in the 1950s helped draft some of Charlotte’s first zoning ordinances.

In 2008, Brown moved to his current firm, the prominent K&L Gates. That’s where he went to work with Bailey Patrick Jr., “whom everybody knows is the godfather of land-use law around here,” Brown said. “He’s been a great mentor.”

As for literally moving up: Horack Talley is on the 26th floor of uptown Charlotte’s One Wells Fargo Center. Now, with K&L Gates, Brown meets clients — and reporters — on the 47th floor penthouse of the Hearst Tower.

Wow. You can see the whole world from here. I know, right? I spent the first month here just staring out the windows. It’s a great view for someone involved in Charlotte real estate. I still stare out a lot.

Land-use law sounds pretty esoteric. Have you always practiced it? I was one of the few in my law school class to know what I wanted to do. I was working on a master’s of public administration. I wanted to be on the government side of the planning thing. I worked for the Georgia Municipal Association, a lobbying group. But I didn’t have the patience for government work. But I still have the passion for land use. I grew up on a farm on a dirt road in Covington, Ga., 35 miles from Atlanta, a town that was eaten up by sprawl. That’s my personal experience, and the source of my passion for landowner rights and for good development and good planning practices. I love what planners do. A lot of what I love about my job is the shaping of communities and how they grow. It’s a thankless job the planners do. But I love being involved.

I’ve seen you representing a lot of developers. Is that your specialty? It’s a general land-use practice, mostly developers but also some landowners, and mostly rezoning. If you’re going to do something with land, you have to deal with local and state laws and agencies. If someone wants to do something with their land, I tell them what they can do now “by right” of what the zoning currently is. A lot of it is upfront due diligence; here’s what you can do with your land. But often there is retitlement involved: They want to do something it’s not currently zoned for. That’s the most visible part of my job, rezoning. I talk a lot with local government planning staff. A lot of local developers are known by the planning staffs and boards. They have a really good product and know the people they’re dealing with. But I also work with national and regional guys.

But it’s not always developers. Sometimes it’s landowners. I represented Cosmos Café in Ballantyne. Well, actually the property owner, not the business. They opened up as a restaurant with live entertainment. The property owner gets a notice from the city saying he’s in violation of the zoning ordinance because it’s a nightclub. So we asked, “What is a nightclub?” We argued what I called “the ‘Footloose’ defense.” Was there dancing in there? We said that’s what made a nightclub or not. We filed an appeal, and we questioned police officers who had visited there. We asked if they had observed dancing. We even asked the police, “Were YOU dancing?” They said no. But we lost. But I had a Plan B: We applied for a variance and won that, and the place is open today. I don’t blame the city. At all. There are a lot of bad operators out there, and it’s better that the good operators, like the property owner where Cosmos is, have to go through this than the bad operators getting away with it.

A lot of the more interesting cases you get are higher-density ones. The Charlotte (planning) staff is a big proponent of density, to help keep the population in Charlotte instead of letting it sprawl out like Atlanta. But among the public, there is a lot of conversation, some of it heated, about density. The issue is: Do we want towns like Wadesboro, in Anson County, to become what my town in Georgia became? It’s better to capture the population in the city of Charlotte, and to a lesser degree in the towns immediately around Charlotte, than to see it spread out to Anson County. The city of Charlotte in particular has got to be proactive about keeping population in the city. In general, I want to see more redevelopment. I want to see us recycle land and not have people going farther and farther out looking for land.

Were you involved with the 2011 Mecklenburg revaluation in any way? Some cases are fun to be involved with, and others are good to be spectators at. And for that one, I was just a spectator. Fortunately.

Tony Brown can be reached at [email protected], (704) 247-2912 or on Twitter at @tonymecktimes.

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