CHARLOTTE – The Sept. 11 decision came without warning and in the middle of the week:
Longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Manager Katrina Young would no longer be in charge of enforcing the city’s zoning ordinance, effective immediately.
Into the breach came Shad Spencer, a longtime city-county planning coordinator, after Planning Director Debra Campbell announced he would replace Young temporarily, and – pending an evaluation of his job performance – perhaps more permanently.
Among developers, engineers, planning agents and land-use lawyers, Young was perceived as wielding a lot of power, as will Spencer. So On the Level immediately asked for a sit-down. First he was out-of-town, and then he was tied-up finding his footing onboard his new career ship.
But at the first opportunity, the 41-year-old Hickory native and 1993 graduate of UNC Charlotte’s geography department said yes, and we met in an office on the eighth floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center uptown.
Spencer started his career on the town of Cornelius planning staff before working for a few months as the one-man planning department
in the small Catawba County town of Long View. Then came the call from the big city, where he had interned as a college student.
You’re a busy man these days. I’m still in transition. I was appointed on a Wednesday and went on vacation that weekend. So, yes. I’ve been busy.
Was it a welcome transition? Yes, yes. I’ve been working with the planning department since 1996, first with the zoning end, then the rezoning section and the subdivision section, mostly multifamily, some single-family, then some urban design work for uptown development. So I’ve be fortunate to work with a lot engineers and big developers and citizens for years. I haven’t seen some of the developers in a few years, but they’re coming back (after the recession). Now my title is interim zoning administrator, for three months, and then we will contemplate whether or not that continues.
So what exactly is it that Shad Spencer does now? That’s something I’ve been trying to get my arms around. I staff – support is a better word – the board of adjustment, the board that landowners, developers and citizens can appeal an interpretation of the zoning code to, or apply for a variance or to plea a hardship. The other thing is,
there are gray areas in the zoning ordinance, and I make an interpretation of what certain portions of it mean, what was the intent, does it support the spirit of the code, is it good planning practice.
That gives you a fair degree of leeway, and, frankly, power. There is a bit of evaluation involved. I guess really what it is about is customer service. There is constantly a concern about customer service, whether it’s working with citizens wanting to put an addition to their home, a small business owner who wants to open a new restaurant or one of the big developers wanting to do a major project. I also work with neighborhoods that have concerns about a project or a structure. A lot of it is problem-solving. If something is not clear in the ordinance but it makes sense, and it’s a positive for the community and it makes planning sense, then I consider it. But I have to be careful. If I have an initial gut reaction to something, I have to always be conscientious, go back and investigate.
Have you been involved with rethinking the city’s 1990s zoning ordinance? Is it high time for the city to do so? As of right now, I have not been involved with that directly, though I expect I will. But yes, it is time to look at it. It is something the city needs to do. Many of the things in it are good for the 1990s, but the city and county have changed, a lot – our goals are different. We are much more of an urban center than we were.
Some people think that when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department gave up land-use planning jurisdiction over the county to the municipal planning departments – around the time you came aboard – it led to some balkanization. Well, that might be true to some degree. But the smaller towns, they know their areas better than the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department. So I think it was a good thing for them. The planning department was definitely a different setup then. The people I work for, and work with, are a great group of folks. Sometimes our plate gets full.
Does the city do a good job with planning and zoning? I think we have a great general planning policy philosophy in place: the centers, corridors and w
edges concept. The center areas are the densest developed areas, like SouthPark, uptown and University Place. The corridors are the transit corridors: South End, the Blue Line – that’s also dense development. In the wedges, we don’t want as much density. That’s more single-family, the neighborhoods. This will help the community continue to grow in an orderly fashion. There are still pressures. We don’t know what the new city council will be like. Over the years, the council has been very supportive, but. . . . The other long-range vision is for urban design, to create the urban feel that people who live in the city want, what they live here for. We did look at that in the past, but today we look at it much more. What is the architecture of a project and how does it interact with the street and with pedestrian traffic?
Back to the power that has been vested in you: You are really going to have to make some Solomon-like decisions. Sometimes, yes, we have to say, “No.” But we can say it differently. We can say: “No. We can’t let you do that. But if you tweak it a little this way, or rezone it for this. . . .” There are all kinds of options and opportunities. We can’t just say, “No.” We have to say: “No. But here are some options for you.”