For some time, I have been urged to write about the Pinehurst long-range planning process. It has been hard for me to get too enthused about what has been a fairly typical process.
Having begun my professional career working on the Dallas long-range plan in 1981, I have sat through lots of discussions about what should be in such a plan. The processes are not that different from place to place, and many of the discussions are surprisingly similar. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it takes something special to rev my engines when I read about long-range planning.
However, recently some of the discussions in Pinehurst have represented truly enlightened leadership and an unaccustomed level of visioning. Far too often, municipal elected officials can get bogged down in minutia. But not in these discussions.
I am specifically referring to the council’s ongoing discussions about how the rural areas around Pinehurst should develop. The exchange of ideas being reported indicates that council members are grappling with really big, bold concepts that have arisen in response to citizen feedback.
For one, they are seriously considering moving these areas away from the segregation of land uses that have led to the destruction of our beautiful natural surroundings while requiring everyone to drive to access everything.
The creation of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods
would allow more compact development while also providing more open space. How great is that! People can walk to the store, to work, to church or to recreation. And surrounding these areas of focused human activity would be natural areas accessible as parks or just beautiful green spaces.
Further discussions are raising the possibility of character-based zoning standards that would help ensure that new development matches the character of historic Pinehurst. Other communities have used a form-based code to deal with things like setbacks or build-to lines. By being more specific about elements like building placement, Pinehurst could ensure that new development maintains the community’s character rather than detracting from it like so much cookie cutter new development we see being imported into Moore County by developers from Fayetteville.
I have to agree with council member Kevin Drum in his preference that the village develop these standards so that developers will know what to expect. Throughout my career, I placed the highest importance on standards being placed in the zoning code so that developers would know what is expected of them from the start, and citizens could count on new development meeting the community’s standards.
Codification of standards also means that developers don’t get jerked around during permitting. And conversely, concerned citizens do not have to worry about having to show up and comment on every single aspect of a proposed development as a developer tries to game the process to his advantage with high priced lawyers and consultants.
A focus on only considering these issues when a specific development request comes in leads to all of these problems. Even worse is giving staff discretion in the zoning ordinance to waive requirements on developers. The citizens are left never knowing what exactly is going to be built as sophisticated developers use every tool at their disposal to reduce their costs and leave the community holding the bag.
Again I must agree with Kevin Drum when he said, “I think you end up with higher quality development. You really want to get out ahead of this.”
One area where I have noticed local governments failing to get out ahead has been the placement of roads. In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, road planning has been too often left to individual developers making proposals that only consider their own property and not the greater good. And what is the most common concern expressed at all the zoning public hearings I have been to since 1981? Traffic.
So why have local elected officials shied away from the most effective way to address this concern, that is, by planning for an efficient road network? I really have no idea. Maybe they have just found the process of thinking proactively to be too hard. Maybe it is just easier to address roads piecemeal even if that approach exacerbates future traffic problems.
I’m hoping that the Pinehurst Village Council will use this planning process to get ahead not only on character based zoning standards, but also on developing an efficient road network. Their high-minded planning discussions so far suggest that this hope may not be misplaced.
Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.