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A Day in the Life of zoning officials

This is part of a series of articles on the duties and responsibilities of municipal employees. For this article, we spoke with zoning officials from across the state about the changes they have witnessed in the field of zoning during their tenure, as well as some of the challenges and rewards of the job.

Anthony Lavender has been with the City of Gaffney for more than 32 years. During that time he has worn many hats, including that of zoning administrator.

 

Tony Lavender
Tony Lavender of Gaffney points to seeing a project go from a set of plans on his desk
to a completed development as a high point of his job. 

Lavender said that when he first started out in zoning, the zoning ordinance was just a small book with a few simple regulations. Zoning has evolved greatly through the years. Today the city has a much more comprehensive ordinance, he said.

Occasionally, property owners hear the word "zoning" and have misconceptions about what it's about, Lavender said.

 It is hard to convince a property owner that zoning is there to protect them from the adverse effects of undesirable development," he said.

Lavender said it is most rewarding to see a project go from a set of plans on his desk to a completed development.

"I get to have a hand in something that, hopefully, the community can be proud of and will be a part of this community for many years to come," he said.

While Lavender has been involved in zoning for years, City of Union Zoning Coordinator Melanie Lawson just began her job full-time in October. Previously, she worked as a family court deputy clerk.

Lawson reports seeing an uptick in commercial growth in Union during the past year, with a new Waffle House restaurant and strip mall. Residential development lags behind, however.

"It's great to see commercial growth," Lawson said. "We-re a small town, and we desperately need it."

Sarah Hanson has been with the City of Goose Creek's Planning Department for six years and has served as the planning and zoning director for a little more than a year. Before coming to work for the city, she was involved in various aspects of development. She worked with one of the largest commercial developers in North Carolina, sold residential real estate and worked as a design consultant for a residential builder in Goose Creek. 

These days, zoning officials place an emphasis on the impact development has on natural resources in order to complement and enhance the natural beauty in communities, Hanson said.

"I think we are more sensitive to the need for open space and gathering space in our developments as well as doing all we can to ensure today's development is thoughtfully planned and designed so it will serve our residents" long term needs," she said. 

 Hanson takes great interest in the design aspect of new development.

"It is humbling to know that what I do on a daily basis can have an impact on this city for generations to come, and I take that responsibility very seriously," she said. "I want that impact to be as positive as humanly possible."

Kent Prause has been with the Town of Mount Pleasant for 25 years. For the past five years, Prause has served as the planning division chief/zoning administrator.

Kent Prause
Kent Prause with the Town of Mount Pleasant facilitates a neighborhood plan meeting
to ensure zoning regulations are applied equally. 

The current trend in zoning is more regulation, Prause said.

"It has gotten more complex, more rules. As an elected official once told me, "If people would just do the right thing (by abiding by a common code of courtesy), we wouldn't need all these rules,"" Prause said.

Prause said he enjoys resolving complex issues on the job, but that it's sometimes difficult to tell people "no" in a way that is courteous and makes them feel they are being treated fairly. People get very upset if they think zoning regulations are being applied unequally, he said.

Eileen Duffy has been the deputy director of the Planning and Zoning Department for the City of North Charleston for the past year and a half. Previously, she worked in the City of Charleston Department of Housing and Community Development.

Duffy said North Charleston has seen an increased pace of development over the last year. Because of that, it's been a challenge keeping up with the volume of permits and plats needed to facilitate the development. Still, it's rewarding to help residents and business owners get their projects completed, she said.

Brian Carter is the new assistant city administrator for the City of West Columbia, but he continues to be involved with his former duties as the city's director of planning and zoning. Carter first started with the city in 1998 and began working in zoning around 2005.

Brian Carter
Brian Carter with the City of West Columbia enjoys meeting individuals who are
starting new projects in the city. 

During the past five years, Carter said there has been more emphasis on how zoning codes are impacting development. Many municipalities are transitioning to a form-based approach. The approach focuses on the impact that development has on the way people experience urban spaces in relation to use, building form or design, overall site design, and scale. West Columbia, however, has not adopted a form-based code. Carter said that approach may not necessarily be the right fit for every community.

Technology also has made an impact on zoning. When the zoning codes were written, no one could have imagined people running computer-based businesses out of their homes, Carter explained. Codes must be amended as needed to keep up with changes in technology, he added.

Zoning has shifted away from a bureaucratic service to a more customer- friendly one, Carter said.

"Municipalities recognize that zoning is often the first point of contact for a new resident or someone opening a business," he said. "Zoning has to have a personal face and a high level of customer service."

At times, it's hard to reconcile someone's desires for their property with the zoning codes, Carter explained. Occasionally a structure or use doesn't fit into the allowed uses for the property, but the regulations are in place for a purpose.

"It can be difficult to convey the idea of there being a larger picture for our community," he said.

Carter said he always enjoys meeting people who are starting new projects in the community, whether it's a homeowner building a playhouse in his yard or a developer building a new neighborhood.

"These are good folks who are invested in their community," he said.