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Spectrum News 1’s Expansion Guide Features A Conversation With Raleigh’s Planning Director

As thousands of new citizens arrive in Raleigh from all over the world, traffic, infrastructure, and affordable housing demands all expand.

The Raleigh Planning Department is in the thick of it, tasked with molding the city’s and its new citizens’ futures.

Pat Young leads the Raleigh department, which is responsible for enforcing regulations and guiding the city’s expansion. He outlines the department’s function, powers, and restrictions in this Spectrum News 1 interview.

Young responds to questions from Spectrum News 1 in this interview. For brevity, clarity, and style, the interview was modified.

News from the Spectrum: What would you say if someone asked you what your job is and what department you work in?

Pat Young (Pat Young): I’d say it’s assisting the city council and the community in establishing and implementing a vision for Raleigh’s future growth. We also police the city’s construction code to ensure that structures are safe. Those are the two major activities we engage in. We don’t create regulations about future development or make final decisions about land use changes. As is customary, that information is withheld for the city council, which is our elected body. We do conduct zoning reviews on developments that have already been approved for a certain use; zoning is what defines and enables different types of uses. So, if someone wants to develop an office building and it’s allowed in their zoning district, staff can review and approve it based on city council guidelines. The guidelines will include topics such as stormwater runoff treatment, setback, height, and building materials, among other things. Changes in land use, on the other hand, must be approved by the municipal council. Based on community input and best practices, we submit recommendations to the city council.

SN: The department’s name is planning and development, yet you’re not developers. So, what is the department’s responsibility when it comes to working with developers in the city?

PY: The private sector accounts for about 95% of what you see emerging. We occasionally work with city, county, state, and federal government partners to develop land, but most of the time it’s the private sector or organizations. So we engage with those individuals to ensure that they understand the city’s goals and standards, and we strive to assist them throughout the process. We don’t have the power to halt progress as a department. They can either have it approved under city rules as adopted by city council, or they can petition city council to amend their zoning, which is the permitted spectrum of uses.

SN: Is there still a department process that a developer must go through if they have a piece of property that fits all of the laws and requirements?

PY: They still have to go via our office and go through a thorough review. We have over 600 pages of regulations about what you can produce and what the development standards are. Stormwater runoff, height, setbacks, and transportation accessibility were all mentioned. We look at a lot of things, like utility service, so our staff will check it against council-adopted standards, and if it meets those requirements, we must approve it. If it is in accordance with the land use and zoning. If it violates zoning, they must petition the city council for a zoning modification.

SN: What is the relationship between current development and the city’s long-term plans?

PY: There is a connection. If we have a road plan in place, and someone comes in with a new development that will result in increased traffic, we can request additional right-of-ways, which is essentially land that will be used for future roadway growth. If the impact is substantial enough, we can also demand that the roadway be improved. However, if a developer’s development has a major impact on traffic, we normally work with them to lessen the impact using things like turning lanes, traffic lights, and other measures. As a result, our operational strategies, transportation plans, and zoning are all in sync.

SN: Does Raleigh have any long-term comprehensive planning documents? When did they become official, and when will they be updated?

PY: The last time the plan was modified was in 2013. In 2013, a new plan was adopted, and it will be modified in 2020. It focuses on ensuring adequate infrastructure to keep up with growth, ensuring that growth is concentrated in activity centers with high levels of infrastructure and transit investment, and encouraging a greater diversity of housing types across the city, such as duplexes, triplexes, and small garden apartments, which were common in almost every neighborhood before WWII but have been largely phased out since WWII. That, we believe, is a fantastic strategy to grow slowly and steadily while also accommodating growth. If we don’t accommodate expansion, the price escalation that we’ve witnessed in recent years will continue.

SN: A lot of the job appears to be technical, with a lot of rules and regulations to follow. What portions of the job, however, entail community involvement and wishes?

PY: The most significant aspect of what we do with our expansion strategies is getting public feedback and input. When we make text adjustments, we take it very seriously and listen to everyone who has provided feedback. A text amendment is modifying the regulations for how development can take place, and zoning is changing the appropriate uses of a specific piece of land. There is a public input mechanism for both of these. We have a website where people may send online comments, and we will respond, and then those remarks will be made public. So those are the questions and answers on proposed rule changes and zoning amendments that are published on that portal for everyone to see.

SN: Many people are surely questioning why the city can’t simply stop development. Is it even a nuclear option, or has it been ruled out completely?

PY: Private property owners have a lot of rights when it comes to developing their land. There are legal issues if they can claim that we are blocking them from conducting any development. I’ll say this in general. We have one of the best-looking locations in the country, and people from all over the world want to relocate to Raleigh. If we don’t find ways to accommodate residents, demand will continue to grow, potentially accelerating the price pressure we’re now seeing. We restrict development too much, while demand continues to rise, resulting in greater prices and less affordability. We genuinely want to maintain our city accessible to individuals from all walks of life and all income levels.

SN: How important is density in steering development?

PY: It’s critical to ensure that our public investments are effective. You’re certainly familiar with our bus rapid transit lines, which serve high-frequency bus routes in the north, east, west, and south. These will only be successful if there are enough attractions and housing density to sustain them. As a result, we believe density is vital in the correct area. We have activity hubs in our comprehensive plan that we want to have the highest density, but we believe that gradual, gentle incremental density across the city is a good strategy to ensure that we can accommodate all sorts of housing and all types of people who come to our area.

SN: You mentioned stormwater, but how does climate change affect planning?

PY: Along with transportation, land use is a major cause of climate change. Land use and transportation are, of course, inextricably connected. We are really concerned about sustainability, and one way we are attempting to achieve this is by encouraging more transit-friendly development. As a result of this development, we are able to make efficient use of our buses because there are enough high-quality destinations and residents. The plan is to have a bus stop in front of people’s homes every 15 or 20 minutes in several parts of the city. This will reduce dependency on single-occupancy vehicles while also addressing the climate problem through increasing transit use. In addition, we’re collaborating with our stormwater management partners to monitor the development’s impact on water quality.