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Planning's Medlin highlights new strategic directions, management style at INC

Newly elevated from interim to full-time status as director of the City/County Planning Department, Steve Medlin spent an hour speaking to the Durham Inter-Neighborhood Council at the Herald-Sun offices on Pickett Road last night.

In a loose and often frank discussion, Medlin held court on planning and zoning issues and tackled process and procedural questions from the INC's typical constellation of Durham activists.

Medlin was invited to speak to the group about Durham's environmental protection ordinance, and the topic remained the focus of both Medlin's comments and many questions from the audience.

He noted that Durham's environmental protection standards exceeded Federal regulations before and after the current ordinance's passage in 1999, with Bull City requirements rising commensurately with increased stringency on the national level. Wetland, steep slope, and flood plain requirements were all listed as being ahead of national standards, some of which are required to allow the region to participate in the Federal flood insurance program.

Durham's planning director, a two-decade-plus veteran of the City and County planning offices, noted that two issues not at the forefront nine years ago -- tree coverage standards and mass grading -- were likely to get increased scrutiny in the coming year.

Medlin noted that the Joint City/County Planning Commission would consider the Planning Department's work program priorities for the coming year, and that the department planned to advocate for the need for further review of both issues.

“When you don’t mandate the preservation of specimen trees, that’s an issue," Medlin said, referring to today's ordinance and practices, which -- outside of the new Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood protection overlay -- do not add special protection for mature trees on lots. "We’re not sure where we want to go yet. That’s one of the things were going to be going out and doing some outreach on, to see what the community wants to see protected. Is it the perimeter of the site, adjacent to the right of way of other adjacent residential properties?”

Medlin's promise to reach out to residents in the forthcoming ordinance review drew appreciative murmurs and comments from the twenty-plus INCers present for the Tuesday night session. "We need to re-engage the community, something we haven't done very well over the last few years. We have very broad expertise here in Durham," Medlin said.

Whether intended as a reference to City/County Planning's operations in general or the Frank Duke years in particular, Medlin left no doubt that a new sherriff is in town, one with a perhaps more progressive management style than that in place during the Duke years.

Duke -- who left the Bull City in 2007 to take Norfolk's top planner slot -- was reputed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of planning rules and regulations, but the former department head faced occasional criticism for reportedly sitting as a final arbiter and checkpoint on a number of interpretation decisions.

"My management style's completely different than my predecessor's," Medlin said, noting that he's created a senior staff of supervisors and managers and is working to empower them to make the final call on planning issues rather than referring matters directly to Medlin's office.

"I need to be able to feel like [residents] can contact anyone in the Planning Department and get the answers that they need. That's the kind of culture I'm trying to create in the department," Medlin added.

The new director also emphasized the importance of community awareness about projects and proposals before the department. Medlin complained of "misinformation" in the community about project notification, and highlighted the creation of an email listserv to which notifications about all public matters coming into the department are sent. This listserv, Medlin stressed, is open for any resident to subscribe to. (You can sign up for notices at this City web site.)

Towards the hour's end, Medlin faced the inevitable question of his thoughts on the current development review proposal. The director's response highlighted the difference between the legislative process of determining what appropriate zoning and land uses are, and the technical process around approving site plans and other documents in cases where developers can build by right.

Medlin noted that the process itself is a solid and sound one, but that "the application of the process itself is flawed;" he added that the legislative side "typically is not where we have a lot of delays," but that the site plan review process that occurs on entitled properties can run from 20-26 weeks, longer than in other communities.

"Streamlining the process does not mean it’s going to speed up," Medlin said. "We’re just going to make it more efficient and effective.  The bottom line is, you’ll know what the process is, you’ll understand it."

"There are things that will potentially make all of the processes more efficient," he added. "Do we need to send out everything for two week re-reviews when they can be done in a week? No."

"Do we need to have such a rigid process where you can only submit certain [documents] one day per month? No.”

Medlin touched on a number of other issues of interest during his conversation with the INC:

Comprehensive Plan Review: The director confirmed that planning is underway for the first-ever review of Durham's three-year-old Comprehensive Plan, which is intended to guide land use decisions throughout the County. Medlin noted that review of this plan is likely to be a multiyear project.

Conservation Subdivisions: While acknowledging forthcoming changes to Durham's regulations on this locally-new development type, Medlin remained supportive of the concept, which trades off an elimination of the minimum lot size rule and an increase in allowable units per acre in exchange for developers agreeing to retain a large area of the parcel undeveloped. The concept, which can be used in Rural Residential-zoned areas in Durham's rural and suburban tiers, is intended to align environmental goals (retaining primary and secondary conservation areas of ecological significance) with development goals (clustered development reduces infrastructure costs and increases the profitability of the project.)

Stormwater Management: Asked about Durham's likelihood of adopting more innovative, progressive approaches to managing rain runoff, Medlin noted the challenges of Durham's red clay soils in adapting to on-site reclamation techniques, though he agreed to review reported recent changes in the Federal classification of the absorption levels of local soils.

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