Planning commission’s new chair makes history

Planning commission makes recommendations about plans, rezonings. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission will have a new chairperson for the first time in six years plus a new member when it convenes Monday.

Last month commission members elected Yolanda Johnson chairperson, a position developer Stephen Rosenburgh had held since 2009.

Johnson will be the first African-American woman to chair the influential advisory board. She runs SB&J Enterprises, a family-owned business that operates concessions at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. The Charlotte City Council appointed Johnson to the commission in 2006.

Want to go?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission meets at noon Monday, July 9, in Room 267 of the Government Center. Click here to read the agenda.

To see a list of all planning commission members, click here.

A change in the longstanding leadership style may be a challenge for the commission, Johnson said. But she says Rosenburgh, who was re-elected twice, has provided her some lessons as she takes over as chair.

 “I believe Rosenburgh’s legacy for the commission has been to stay focused on the broader vision of the city, even when we, as commissioners, have been faced with very technical, tedious issues that need to be considered,” she said.

It’s a 14-member advisory body that makes recommendations on city plans and rezoning proposals. It has sometimes been a launch pad for those seeking elected office. They include current at-large City Council members Claire Fallon and David Howard, who both served on the commission; Howard chaired it 2007-09, before Rosenburgh.

Rosenburgh said he is confident in his successor. Johnson has a diverse set of training in law, real estate and investment, he said in an interview, and demonstrated leadership skills while serving as his vice chair.

“Most importantly, she was raised in a family of public service,” he said. “She’s an incredibly competent woman to chair the commission.” Johnson’s father, the late Bernie Johnson, had served on the commission.

Planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor, the Mecklenburg County commissioners and the City Council. Commission members serve on either its zoning committee, which Johnson will lead, or its planning committee, which newly elected vice chair Andy Zoutewelle, will lead.

Johnson said the commission’s main tasks are to review rezoning petitions and work alongside the Charlotte Planning Department in its just-launched project to assess the city’s zoning ordinances. (To read more about that project, "Charlotte to take a new look at its aging code," click here.)

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To read's interview with Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell, click here.

Zoutewelle was appointed to the planning commission in 2009 and is president of A.G. Zoutewelle Surveyors. He said the main priority and challenge for the commission and Charlotte planning staff is to balance the desires of planners, developers and residents.

“We both have the goal of finding the appropriate balance between laying out constraints for development and allowing developers to develop in the direction they think is best,” Zoutewelle said. “Finding that balance is a win-win.”

Zoutewelle said the commission also aims to make Charlotte a more attractive city for companies and to improve the city’s road and rail networks.

In addition to new leadership, a new commission member will be sworn in during the Monday meeting.

Tom Low, director of planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Charlotte office, was appointed to the commission by Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Low said he wants to help the commission raise the bar for development and planning in Charlotte. “We really want to reform our standing ordinances and development practices,” he said. “We want to retool and repair our communities that are struggling. I can bring a lot to the table; I have a very broad toolbox.”

Low is a founder and leader of Civic by Design, a nonprofit group that serves as a discussion forum on urban design topics. He said he is open to trying a large spectrum of planning approaches in Charlotte, from changing zoning ordinances to using guerrilla urbanism tactics, a do-it-yourself approach that initiates small-scale projects without waiting for bureaucratic approvals.

“We need to change the conversation and ultimately change planning culture,” he said in an interview. “Right now the time is good for that.”