Walter Fields dishes dirt about dirt.
As one of the region’s most well-known land-use consultants, he’s got an opinion on just about everything related to development.
A lot of people listen to those opinions because he’s got the experience and the know-how to back them up. He’s been in the Charlotte land-use business – first as a public-sector urban planner and then a private one – since 1977, when Charlotte was a completely different city.
It might or might not mean anything that he lives outside Mecklenburg County, with his wife, Janet, who works for Wells Fargo and is “proud of the fact that she is a First Union legacy.”
We found him on a recent afternoon in a small office building tucked behind a popular South End pub, looking very relaxed in a knit sweater-vest and sounding very self-assured.
The sign outside says “The Walter Fields Group.” There’s nobody else here. Or are you using the royal “group”? You have to think big. When you open an office like this, you want it to sound impressive, so you put “group” on the sign. And there have been times when there were more people working here.
Are you a lawyer? No, I’m not a lawyer. But I have always enjoyed the legal side. I enjoy that part of it, the ordinance side. I wrote ordinances for a long time. I’m a city planner. I was trained as one, and I’ve been one for 41 years in both the public and private sector, working with people in the development community who want to do something. Sometimes it’s rezoning, sometimes subdivision ordinances, sometimes old rezonings. I’m a problem-solver. There’s a process to the regulatory system, and I negotiate back and forth between a developer’s good idea and an ordinance or zoning that stands in the way of that good idea. Not just developers. I also help communities and churches, and entities like that, to negotiate the process. And I’ll still dabble in the public sector.
Dabble in the public sector? I take on public planning projects – by myself and sometimes with a group – projects like helping to put together comprehensive plans for cities. I did an area plan for North Charleston, S.C., for instance. It’s one thing to say you want to do XYZ. We say, here’s how to do it, the means by which to implement your plan. It’s good overall practice, and it keeps my foot in the public sector side of this business, because I did it at one point in time. My public sector career started in Hampton, Va., and I came here (to Charlotte) to work for the city-county planning commission, which is now the city planning department. Now they do the city, and the towns do their own spheres of influence in the county, their own jurisdictions, as they have annexed. It was better when a single agency coordinated everything. It was something that was in place since 1955. It was a very good thing, as a practical matter. I began working for the city-county planning commission in 1977 and left in 1997, and it was moving in the city’s direction, it was beginning to merge.
Now things are more balkanized? Balkanization is a good word. It’s one of the words we used when we had the city-county planning commission. It had jurisdiction all the way to Lake Norman back then.
You sound wistful. Now some of those towns, such as Cornelius, seem to have a lot of development problems. In the smaller towns that are crowded, with lot of development issues, the question becomes, “Where do you jump?” They’re worried about the balance of their growth between residential, industrial, office and retail, they’re worried about infrastructure and traffic, they’re very worried about their tax base. It will be interesting to see how these things are going, in Huntersville and Cornelius more so than Davidson. They have their own ideas about growth there. They’re happy taking it slowly and carefully, and it works for them, and they’ve stuck to their guns.
Earlier you said you work for developers, property owners and local governments. How much of your clientele is developers? Ninety percent developers. Though there have been times when it was more like half. I’ve been working a lot more residential (development) lately. The housing market is coming back. More commercial and retail follows the rooftops. But there’s always something interesting going on. One project I worked on for many months, then the property owner decided it would be too expensive to comply with all the regulations and conditions. I normally try to strike a balance. But he was dealing with the (North Carolina) DOT and local transportation authorities, and at that interchange of (N.C.) 115 and Alexanderana (Road), near the ramp from (Interstate) 485. It was a perfect place for highway-oriented retail, but it was complicated and he gave up. I worked with Walmart to get approved right near there in Huntersville.
Normally, I really try to work through the issues and work with planning staffs and problem-solve and get it done.
You’re a land-use expert. On what land do you choose to live? I live up in Lincoln County, on the lake. When I say I live up on the lake, people presume it’s in Mecklenburg or Iredell. I tell them I live on the dirt that holds up the other side of Lake Norman. You can get there straight up (N.C.) 16, but I choose to go up Beatties Ford (Road) and pick up (N.C.) 73 and go across. It’s lower speed and I can decompress before I get home. I did the comprehensive plan for Lincoln in 2000, and I found out it was the best-kept secret in terms of land value. The value was there that was not on the Meck side, or in Iredell. My wife and I spent years looking for just the right place. We found a place that was not just right, but we spent a year making it right.
Are you a gadfly? I can be.
You sure get quoted a lot. That just means I’m stupid enough to answer questions from the press. Most people are smarter than that.
BROWN can be reached (704) 247-2912, [email protected], or on Twitter at @tonymecktimes