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On the Level: Wayne Herron, Cornelius’ new planning director

At 46, Wayne Herron can say he has spent more than half his life working in the public sector.

Wayne Herron, who this month became planning director for the town of Cornelius, says its land-use plan should be 'user-friendly.' For him, that means 'it should be protective of the environment and of the quality of life here.' Photo by Tony Brown

After 17 years in land-use planning — including stints as planning director for the town of Boone and the city of Monroe — Herron took a detour into municipal management, the last three as city manager for Monroe.

But now he’s back in planning, for Cornelius — and at a critical time in the town’s development history. Landlocked on all sides, Cornelius is all but built-out, saddled with a high retail vacancy rate and struggling with housing-density, infrastructure and growth issues.

Meanwhile, the town’s population grew by 57 percent, from 14,000 to 22,000, between 2000 and 2010, and is expected to reach 30,000 by 2020 and 37,500 in 2030.

But Herron seemed pretty serene, considering the pressures of his new responsibilities, when we talked with him this month in his office in Cornelius Town Hall.

Here’s what he had to say.

Do you know what you’re walking into? From a planning standpoint, this is a community that cares about what the community looks like and functions. I’ve been amazed at the involvement, the attendance at planning meetings and the participation at meetings. I’m walking into a very caring community.

What do you see as the headline issues you’ll be facing? I’m still in my first two weeks. But the first thing I’d like to do is update the land-use plan. It has not been updated since 1999.

On the other hand, Cornelius has taken over so many small-area plans that take on a number of jurisdictions. I’ve talked to elected officials and staff and the public, and I think a land-use plan is what ties all of those small-area plans together. No. 2 is an overhaul of the land-use code. But you’d have to do No. 1 first.

I’d want to do something other than the standard Euclidean maps of districts in favor of making the code match the land-use plan. You always want a good balance of land use. I want to be business-friendly, but first you have to determine what business-friendly is. But it at least means the code should be user-friendly. People ought to be able to understand things. There were things about the Cornelius code that after nearly 20 years in this field I didn’t at first understand.

But by business-friendly, I mean it should be protective of the environment and of the quality of life here. I want to look at all processes to see that whatever regulations we have, we need. If you don’t need it, get rid of it. That’s why I want to do a complete overhaul of the land-use plan, to try to streamline the code. But for right now, I’m trying to wade my through the Comprehensive Master Plan the town published in 2012.

So what are some of the solutions? Getting an Exit 27, a new exit from Interstate 77 at Westmoreland Road, which would a great business-recruiting tool. Right now all we have is exit 28, Catawba Avenue, which is all built-out. Getting that second exit open — that would change our whole world.

You’ve been talking a lot about land-use plan and code changes. What is your philosophy about those things? My philosophy? I don’t really have one. My job is to make sure the Board of Commissioners adheres to their goals and avoids pitfalls. I see a big part of my job as an educator who helps keep the board informed, and the citizen advisory boards as well. I’ve been surprised about the level of expertise on those advisory boards. The transportation board is headed by a traffic engineer. The architecture board has architects on it. My philosophy is to help the boards adhere to the code.

After 17 years in the urban planning business, you went into city management for, what, seven years? I took a little venture into management, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I’m very excited to be back.

Are you all relocated? No. Right now I’m commuting. We’re trying to get our house in Monroe squared away. But when we do move, I really like Antiquity. It would be a very convenient way of life.

Antiquity? The master-planned, mixed-used development? You could use the commuter train, if it comes into existence in our lifetimes. Wow. I didn’t know that. It would be nice to ride the rail when it comes. And I could walk to work. That would be nice.

You resigned as Monroe city manager in July after a series of conflicts with staff and board members, including one with the chief of police. What did you take away from that? It was definitely a learning experience. I love the people in Monroe. I served there as city planner, assistant manager and city manager, where I had 500 people on payroll, and I enjoyed those relationships.

But sometimes it doesn’t pan out. It just didn’t work out the way I expected, and I’ve moved on and gone somewhere else, to something even better, and I’m thankful to the Lord for bringing me to Cornelius. Everyone hopes he is 100 percent successful in everything, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s all part of the journey. I’ve been blessed with great opportunities, and this will be another great opportunity.


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