Conversations with area planners

Talk of the Towns: Iredell County

A subdivision off N.C. 150 in southern Iredell County. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Talk of the Towns is a PlanCharlotte series visiting planners from the 14-county Charlotte region. This installment takes us to Iredell County.

This county of 162,708 people covers a lot of ground – from Charlotte suburbs on Lake Norman shores, to an older industrial county seat of Statesville, to rural communities in the northern part of the county. Matthew Todd has been a planner in Iredell County since 2005 and planning director since 2013. He talked about farmland preservation, industrial development and the challenges of planning for such a diverse county.

Most of the planners we’ve talk to in this series are municipal planners. How does county planning differ from city planning?

One of the differences in Iredell County is that we don’t have water and sewer. Anticipating growth is different, because we don’t have an engineering department telling us which way they’re going to run lines. That plays into the difference between urban, city living versus rural living.

We also border nine other counties, so we’ve got a lot of jurisdictions that we have to talk to at times. You’ve got Mooresville, Harmony, Statesville, Troutman and Love Valley. Then [the towns of] Davidson and Catawba have small jurisdictions within Iredell. Any time we’re looking at a rezoning near these towns or counties, we try to communicate with them. I don’t know if town planners have to do that as much. They can focus a little more on their own plans and their own desires for their areas.

In long-range planning, we try to fold all those municipalities’ plans into the county plan so that we can at least attempt to get them to match. It helps.

How has the economic downturn affected your county?

Todd: It’s had a big effect. We had 16 staff at one time in planning and we have nine now. What seems to be happening now is more interest in the city limits or in the city’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (areas just outside city limits subject to city zoning but whose residents do not pay city taxes). More and more developers are seeking out that water and sewer. We haven’t seen the number of subdivisions coming through on septic systems as we have in the past.

When the recession hit we had over 6,000 lots on the books that were platted and ready for development. So with that surplus, what you’ve seen is those lots being developed rather than new lots being created. There are still a lot of lots on the books.

There’s a ton of residential development going on in Mooresville, and some in Troutman. Statesville is just hanging in there. As you get farther north in the county, there’s limited activity. (Iredell County) does the planning for the town of Harmony. I think they’ve had two rezonings since 2006. They got sewer in 2011, so that changed their potential up there. You’ll see more happening up there soon.

Does having so much Lake Norman shoreline present any environmental challenges?

With that much shoreline frontage, erosion control is a concern. Several years ago, we took over the erosion control from the state. That local control has been key. With the lake being there, the resource and the amenity that it is, we can now have more control over that planning. For example, we require erosion control plans on any disturbance of a half-acre or more; the state only does it for disturbances of an acre or more.

What planning strategy are you most proud of?

Todd: Iredell is a large farming community; we rank No. 1 in a lot of farm commodities. So we put a lot of stuff in our zoning code to really balance the needs of a farming community versus suburban residential development. If a developer wants to come in and build a subdivision next door to a working farm, they have to set their wells a certain distance away from the property line, for example. Basically, we look at it like this – the farm is already there and you’ve got this residential development coming in. Rather than 100 percent penalizing the farmer, you strike a little bit of a balance between those two. On the south end of the county, you might not see the need for it but from Troutman north, we have a lot of rural communities.

We also run a farmland preservation program. It’s a state-based program, but we help administer it. A farmer can enter the program at any time. It’s really about notification of neighbors or anyone coming into the area that this area is a farm, and you might hear farm noises, smells 24/7. There’s an enhanced part of the program where farms have to pledge to stay working farms for at least 10 years. That gives them high priority for some grants and gives them some protection against zoning requirements if they decide to do some non-farm activities. For example, if someone grows and cuts hay and they want to sell pitchforks, that won't trigger any zoning requirements for retail.

When the economy was booming, we were hearing a lot of concerns from farming communities because you were seeing farms being sold to build subdivisions right and left. So we were receiving a lot of push from some of the farming communities to get some things in place. But since the slowdown, it’s not on anyone’s doorstep anymore.

What is your biggest disappointment as a planner?

In our most recent comprehensive plan (the 2030 Horizon Plan completed in 2009), we were trying to take a paintbrush to the entire county. I could see us, when we get around to it, trying to zero in on some small areas again. At that time we had two subcommittees for the entire county. I think some more regional subcommittees would be good for us and good for those areas. We would have ended up with a better product if we had honed in on specific areas.

From a zoning perspective, having regulations in place to accommodate our suburban areas in the south but also having regulations to accommodate our truly rural areas is a big challenge.

What’s the “next big thing” for Iredell County?

As a county, we’ve worked a lot on industrial development. Right now, we’re doing an inventory of what areas we already have zoned industrial and from that, we’re looking at what we could zone industrial for the future. On the industrial development end, what you hear is that if it’s not already zoned industrial the companies are not going to waste their time coming.

In industrial development, everybody is looking for that value-added step. For the large part, Iredell County is still looking for that. What I mean by that is something like a local canning facility or hubs for vegetable packing sheds. Some type of processing or distribution aspect so that agricultural value stays in the county rather than going to another jurisdiction. We kind of need a champion from the community to make that happen.