An interview with Maha Chambliss

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Maha Chambliss has chaired the Raleigh Planning Commission through the development of the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. She has served on the planning commission for the last six years, but her time on the board will end in January. As the comprehensive plan development process came to an end late last month, Raleigh Public Record contributor Chrystal Bartlett sat down with Chambliss to talk about her time volunteering on one of city government’s most important commission.

How did you get first involved the planning commission?

Actually, I got a surprise phone call from Jesse Talaiferro. She and I are good friends.  Just moms, we met at Raleigh Preschool. Both of us had children there and she knows I’m an engineer and she just called me up. She was on the city council and she said, “Would you like to be on the planning commission?” And I said, “What?” I said, “That takes a lot of time.” She said, “Yeah, but it’s really rewarding.  You really should think about it. I’ll let you think about it and whatever, and I’ll call you back in a week.” I said, “I don’t know, let me talk to my family,”  because I knew that would take, between here, being a president of a company and then also working on the planning commission, which is really going to take a lot of time, so I talked to my family and they all said, “Oh yeah, do it.  You know we’ll be fine.” I said, “I’ll have night meetings.” “Yeah, we’ll be alright” I said “O.K.” So I thought about it and I thought about and then I said “O.K, I’ll do it.”

Now, tell me a bit more about this, because sometimes appointments are paid, sometimes they are not, they can be for certain term;, how does that work out for the chair of the planning commission?

This is completely voluntary, not paid at all. Two years, three terms and I am finishing up my last, third term and that’ll be in January.

What is your perspective of how the planning commission fits into the larger scheme of city government?  Is it a guiding force? Do you implement of other’s goals? Are you a resource for research and community input? None of the above?  

The planning commission is really an advisory planning body. It is not supposed to be political, it is not paid. It is really composed of a dynamic and diverse group. Some have backgrounds in construction, some have backgrounds in architecture,  I have background in engineering, some have background in Wake County Public Schools , one’s a banker, one’s retired,  one is a homebuilder, so there’s a dynamic there.  But basically our role is too look at the planning that the City of Raleigh has to do, whether it be in the rezoning efforts that are being petitioned by different developers, whether its site plans that have to come before the city planning commission, not all site plans come to the planning commission, only a certain size.

Well, that sounds a little reactive.  “When something comes in the door, we are here to be an advisory board, a resource perhaps for research and community input.” It sounds like research, because you have the broad background.

What happens is the planning department at the City of Raleigh reviews the site plans and prepares a document with findings and reasons of how that plan is to be looked at.  They give the facts only; does it meet the comprehensive plan? Does it…

This would the new one? Or the old one?  

The old one. They would say if it is consistent with the existing or present guiding plan, whichever one that is.

So they are asking you?  

No, the staff advises us and gives us a whole set of conditions of, you know, it does or does not meet; it is or it is not consistent. How will it impact water? Sewer? Transportation? Was a traffic study needed?  They give us all the benchmarks by which the city planning staff has reviewed it. And all the departments have reviewed it and they give us a laundry list of items. Now, after that, we have rules that we have to review a site by and there are at least eight standards. And those standards are based on basically, like; say for example a rezoning is not consistent with the comprehensive plan. So we look at it.  The first thing we have to do is, “Is it good and is it in within the public interest?” Because there sometimes might be reasons where it might be good and for the public interest, even though it is not consistent with the comprehensive plan. And the other is, the existing comprehensive plan is 20 years old.  It’s from ’89 I think. I’m not sure of the exact year, but it is very dated. So when we’ve been reviewing these comprehensive plans we go,” Oh well, when we wrote this, this was so long ago, we now have to look at in the scheme of how the development is in Raleigh and where it is.” And still we may say, “It is not a good plan,” or we may say, “It is a good plan.” This is just one item you review it by.  And then we keep going.   Is it harmonious with the existing area? Let’s say you have a retail store next to a home; is the landscaping going to be enough to buffer?  And a lot of times in rezoning cases, there’s a lot of negotiations going back and forth. The neighbors negotiate, the planning commission negotiates.  The neighbors may say, “We want to not be able to see you,” or, “We want you to put larger trees.”  And then the planning commission may go, “Well there’s a stream there, would you consider doing more for the environment on the stormwater effects?” And sometimes they offer and sometimes they don’t.  So it’s just a back and forth.

So you come after the planning staff?

We come after the planning staff. And after the CAC (Community Advisory Council) also meets. So that’s, I guess, maybe I should just give a quick overview. Staff, I’m sure looks at it first with the petitioner. And then after the petition and the staff kind of talk about it, then the developer will go to the CAC and there will be advertisement and notification and all that. And then the CAC will review it. They may go to the CAC once, twice or however many times, you know meet with the neighbors. And then, eventually, it will come back to us after the staff has reviewed everything that came as a result of the CAC meeting.

Now since it seems like you were in a review and approval process, you may kick something back, and….

Well, we do review and approve, but oh yes, sometimes we do say- especially in the contentious ones- where the neighborhood and the petitioner have some bone of contention, we may say, “We’d really like you guys to go back and talk about it some more and see if you can’t come up with a happy medium.” And they will go back and talk about it, and sometimes they have resolved it amongst themselves and sometimes not, and then we have to just make a decision based on the facts that have been provided to us by the Planning Commission.

So not always reactive, sometimes very proactive.

Yes.

 

Now, given that we have an old plan, we’re looking at a new one, which in time will be old. I’m sure in 2030 they’ll be wondering “What were they thinking?”  Just like you do now with the plan from ’89. But still, things happened during this time period.  Whether or not it met the last plan or this plan or was totally independent of that, whether it involved the comprehensive plan or activities that fell outside that purview, what is your impression of the development- whether it involved the comprehensive plan or not- that has occurred during your six-year term?  

There’s been some really, I think, exciting developments.  I think downtown is really one of the exciting things, the development along Glenwood Avenue, the revival of just Glenwood Avenue has really been exciting. The type of uses, the mixed use, that’s has really been new for Raleigh. It’s more vertical now than just horizontal. I think that to me is the biggest, is the mixed use, the diversity.  You know, the having the shops on the bottom and having the residential on the floors above, having offices, having like, like North Hills, you know, that’s another mixed use. You have offices on top of retail, you have residential on top of retail and I think that’s really the exciting thing about where the development in Raleigh is heading. It’s not going horizontal, it’s going vertical.

Let’s talk about the interplay. The influence that people have in the comprehensive planning process, but also there’s influence to be played – not everything that happens in Raleigh comes within the purview of the Comprehensive Plan do I assume correctly? I mean, it’s pretty comprehensive, but is it that comprehensive?

Actually, there have been numerous meetings and there’s been a lot of outreach in different parts of Raleigh by the planning department. They’ve gone to several CACs, it’s been very well advertised, there’ve been a lot of comments, comments on the Web site, everything that the Comprehensive Plan is looking to do was written on that Web site for anyone to review. So, there’s been a lot of public commenting. I think the Planning Staff had several hundred comments and it has really been an awesome process. I know they’ve had meetings that sometimes lasted until midnight. There’s been quite a bit of participation by different groups.

Well, you mentioned groups, and I’m, just going to run thru a list. Individual citizens. I’m just Jane and Joe Sixpack; maybe I came to the meeting or e-mailed something.

There were a lot of individuals that came to the meetings. I did not attend all the planning staff’s presentations, so I can only speak to the meetings that we held at the planning commission, but they were definitely Jane Doe that just shows and says…

But you also got input from those meetings that you did not attend.

Oh, yes.

Well, what influence do you think…is there a different influence between, “I’m just an individual citizen and I’m making this comment,” or “I’m a civic organization and I represent a number of individuals.” I could be a CAC; I could be a historical society. Now, in one place we’re talking about one individual and in the other case, we’re talking about groups of individuals.

The way I saw it is, the groups of individuals that came before us usually had studied the comprehensive plan more, had looked at issues that they were looking to, that they had interest in.  Like the Chamber of Commerce had an issue, had reviewed it with respect to housing.  So they came to us with a set of comments that they presented to us. So they had really studied it, and had looked at it and wanted this homelessness issue to be looked at, they, they gave us a whole list of things that they wanted us to consider, so that was done. Now when individuals came it was different types of individuals.  You had individuals who came because they own property.  And they would have an attorney and they would look at the land use map and they would say, “Well, I’d like for you to consider doing this, something different.” And then there were individuals that just really talked about the whole, and there weren’t many of those, but they would come to us and say “This is great, we really like this process, we like the participation,” but it was always someone who had a reason to be there that was there.

Did you see any difference in the influence that an individual would have versus a group of individuals, organized?

If it was an environmental group they had laundry list of environmental issues, if it was a housing group, they would concentrate on the issues for housing and nothing else.

Now that anticipates my next one. Professional organizations were one of the groups. Civic organizations versus professional organizations.   I would maybe place the Upper Neuse River Basin in that group, the HOAs, the Raleigh Realtors group …and I’m just making these up, I have no idea who put in comments, but maybe those are different than a community organization. Would there be any difference between a civic organization, the influence they might bring to the process versus a professional organization and then getting down to- as w e did with  individual citizens- “Hi, I’m an individual business and I have this comment,” versus “I am group of businesses or a group of environmentalists.”

I would say that all comments that were presented or sent in were addressed one by one. And the planning stuff gave us a list of all of them. It didn’t matter if you were a citizen that had a question or a civic group that had a question, they were all addressed. Now, that’s not to say that sometimes the planning staff may have said “Thank you, so noted,” so that was just a, “we appreciate your comment,” but then there were some that were specific and asked for things. And then the staff would say, “Well, we agree and we looked at this, and this is what we’ve done.” Or they may say,” We disagree and we think the Comp Plan as it stands is fine.”

So this was a two-way process in some cases. Sometimes it was one-way, sometimes it was two-way, but you didn’t see any difference between a comment made by, say Joe or Jane Sixpack or Joe or Jane I own a business versus the organizations?  

I don’t really think so. I think that every comment was just looked at professionally. It was reviewed, it was addressed, and we moved on. Some of it didn’t require any comment, it was just a note or something sent in.

Now, we just mentioned an environmental group, so what role does/did the Planning Commission play with regard to preserving/conserving the city’s natural resources?  

Well, actually, it’s interesting.  One of the groups that did make comments was the Environmental Advisory Board.

This is a citizen group or a municipal group?

It’s a citizen group.  And this group had recommendations that they brought forth to us and we discussed them, and one of them was, for example, was lighting in parking lots.  And they want to make sure that we did not have excessive lighting because sometimes it hurts the bird flights or confuses them at night or something like that.  So these were presented to us and we went through each and every one and reviewed them.

Now those were comment-driven environmental. Did the planning commission come up with its own role in regard to preserving and conserving the natural resources as you created the plan?

Well actually, the comments that were made by the environmental board, we did kind of weigh in on some of that.  We did say, “We want the comprehensive plan to maybe use some different language, maybe use the word’ to encourage’, maybe use the word ‘incentivize,’ you know, things like that.  This is where we weighed in and said,” Yeah, we agree with that and these are word that we would like for you to add.” So (Assistant Planning Director) Ken Bowers would take our comments and come back the next meeting and he had rewritten the paragraphs that we had suggested that be rewritten and includes some of our suggestions.

Were there any things that came direct from the planning commission in your capacity as an advisory board and resource?

Now, we did not write or come up with the writing of the Comp Plan. We just reviewed it and made comments and suggestions.

Were any of the comments and suggestions regarding the environment that came from the Planning Commission?

They came as a result really of comments from the environmental board, so if you say it that way, yes.

Sometimes people just don’t know. It goes back to that role question. I probably sound stupid and I am, but I also might be representative.

No, we did not write it, we just reviewed it.

You were there as a professional resource.

There were lots of comments.  You know, we have, like I said, we have a diverse planning commission, so people did make different comments with respect to different areas that they felt strongly about, so yeah, they were definitely taken into account.

There’s a lot of zoning work ahead to operationalize parts of the comprehensive plan.  In your professional opinion, how much of the zoning oriented parts of the plan will go through? 100 percent ? 50 percent? Less?

Explain exactly, when you say ‘zoning,’ are you looking at properties are being rezoned?  Or are you looking at what the planning commission sent to the City Council?

In the comprehensive plan, there’s a lot of plan, but if you want to make it happen it needs to be some sort of regulation involved.  And zoning is one of the palette of different kind of regulations that you might be brought to bear, to make something the difference between an intention, the difference between “it would be good to” and “this is how it will be done.”I guess zoning is one those in a panoply of tools?

Well actually, the good thing about this plan, if I am understanding you correctly, is there is a land use map.  And the land use map really is very specific to, ‘Now, this is residential. Now maybe you can go from maybe this type of residential to that type of residential, but this is residential.’ So the land use map has really taken a big overview of the whole city and designated, in beautiful colors and beautiful mapping, and that really – because of how specific I think the land use map is- is why the Planning Commission ended up having to spend a great deal of time on it.  Because all the property owners started looking at their property and saying “Uh-oh, you know, am I being zoned this? Am I being zoned that?” And over and over we had to explain, ‘We’re not taking away your existing zoning. We’re just saying this is what is recommended.” We can’t take away zoning, we’re just saying, “We think this is the plan for the City of Raleigh.” But if they came for a rezoning, then we’d look at the comprehensive plan.  But we’re not taking away any of the vested right s in the existing property.

So the existing zoning won’t change.

No, ma’am. The existing zoning won’t change.

But if you already had a part of the city that was mainly zoned residential and now – in the new plan – it might be zoned commercial.  Do you deal with that on a case by case basis as it comes up? Or grandfather some in or do you just say, “Well, the zoning changed here.”

Well, let’s just say it is zoned residential and you build a house, that’s not even going to come before the planning commission. But if you have residential and it’s being zoned as, you want to rezone it say, industrial, to be on the opposite pendulum, but now, on the land use plan it says its office. Then the planning commission would review it really as to whether the industrial or the office is the more appropriate. And there would have to be good reasons for it to go to the industrial. And what would be the benefit and the public interest to support it to go there? Because the Comp Plan now says its office. That’s just, you know, the discussion. But what you have on the ground right now is residential, so if you want to build residential, if you want to build five or six homes, that’s not a rezoning, that’s your right, because you own the property.

So do you see any rezoning being prompted by the Comp Plan?

I would think that there will be several rezonings and I think that’s why we spent a great deal of time, because a lot of the land owners were worried. “I have this and I don’t want to lose it, so can you look at the Comp Plan now?” Because what everybody is worried about is they don’t want to come before the Planning Commission with a case or a zoning saying it’s inconsistent. So they were all looking at is saying, “Can you look at maybe allowing me to do maybe office and residential or maybe a mix or something like that?”

So in that subset of rezonings that will be prompted by the Comprehensive Plan, given all the work ahead, do you feel confident that 100 percent of it will go through? 75? 50?

If they meet the Comp Plan, yeah, I’d say a 100 percent could go through or a large percent could go through. If they don’t meet the Comp Plan, I think there may be some difficulty in their rezoning and I think what we are trying to do right now is make it simpler to anticipate. Whether it will be that that petitioner will get what they want or not and be able judge it by the land use map and compare it to that.

So of the Comp Plan called for, “O.K, we’re going to change the zoning in this area,” if that doesn’t happen with just a sweep of a pen, but will happen as time goes by, as people submit petitions, do you think there’s going to a be a lot of deviation there?  Some give and take?

Well, the first thing I want to correct is that the Comp Plan does not rezone, because the Comp Plan is just making a recommendation here.

That’s true, and I’m wondering how many of those recommendation are actually going to happen?

I guess time will tell, I don’t know.

I guess I just figured you guys had looked at, say, cities of a similar size. Having put together a Comp Plan like this, when it came down to having it operationalized, they always look at ,”Well, what amount of the vision came thru the other end of the sausage machine?”

You know, right now I don’t think any of us can anticipate that.

And sometimes you’ll see case studies written up using that as a metric which is why I’m trying to bring it in here.

The one thing that Com Plan does do is that it allows for periodic review, which really is something I don’t believe was thought about last go-round. So right now, with the periodic review, there will be an assessment made.

And what is the periodicity?

I want to say the first one is a year and after that is maybe three years.  I can double check, but the first one is very soon after and then after that will be more number of years, I think it is three if I remember correctly.

Well don’t sweat it, you’re gonna be gone, you’ve got term limits!

Yeah, I won’t be dealing with that!

But that’s interesting, that we have a component of this Comprehensive Plan for it to be updated so maybe the people in 2030 maybe won’t be scratching their heads so hard and wondering, “What were they thinking?” as you do with the 1989 plan.

Can you describe how the zoning process will work? Will there be publicized public meetings to gather comment, as happened with the Comprehensive Plan?  Or will the professional staff make decisions and then implement them thru the current hearing process. What role, if any, would the Planning Commission play?[ed- this is a not ALL that my big mouth say, but it is the general gist – need I transcribe ALL that I said?]

It would basically be the same as it is today. There would be a rezoning request, there would still be a public hearing, it would still go to the staff and then it will come to the Planning Commission with the staff recommendation as to whether it is consistent or inconsistent with the new plan and the findings and reasons as to whether, you know, how transportation is affected, how stormwater and all the other things the staff reviews when they look at a request.

The same public hearing requirements?

Right now we believe it is going to be the same. Actually, I’m not aware of any changes on this part.

Looking back on your term, did you think when you started your first two- year term, “I’m going to be doing two more?”

Actually, I knew it was a six year total with renewing, but there was no guarantee that I would be accepted for the next two years after that or whatever. I just thought I’d go in, try it and see if I could learn and contribute and see what happens – and I did enjoy it tremendously! It’s a wonderful group of people who are on the Planning Commission and the staff is always awesome to help us out. With us sending questions, “Why are we doing this? Or “What was the reason for this?” and great deal of relationships, a lot of hard work and fun.

What do you think you are going to miss the most?

Just the learning process, I think, because it really is a learning process. You really get to learn how business is done and how people interact, how zoning cases are presented and site plans are presented. There’s just a lot to learn. No two projects are alike, no two re-zonings are alike, no two site plans are alike, there’s a lot of diversity, you don’t get bored.

What is the thing you will be happiest to leave behind?

I will gain a few hours every Tuesday and get some more work done.

Just on Tuesday? There’s not been any homework involved in this?

Oh yeah, there’s homework. At night, that’s a whole different. I’m getting some more home time. No more night time meetings with the city joint city council Planning Commission. I’ll get some more free time and gain some of my study time back.

What are some of the high points the low points? The funniest? Frustrating? Surreal?

There was a case that had occurred and I won’t name it, but it was a case where a petitioner forged some signatures, a neighbor’s signature and the neighbor came before us and said she did not sign anything.  And the City of Raleigh Planning staff was made aware of this – like the day before the Planning Commission meeting – and that was really not a very good thing. That was very frustrating to me.  I was the only one that voted against that case that day. I think they should have gone down to, I mean, it didn’t meet the standards by which the site plan should be submitted and there were a lot of questions, so I think the case should have just been disapproved that day and let the lawyers deal with the rest, and unfortunately it kept lingering and lingering.

What was one of your most satisfying moments?

One of the most satisfying is really how the Comprehensive Plan came about and how transparent the process was. There was like 14 meetings held for that one thing and we held special meetings and squeezed in committee of the whole meetings just to discuss the Comprehensive Plan. My most satisfying moment is when I stood before the city council and I had asked all my fellow Planning Commission members to come and stand and be recognized to say. “We have done it and here’s our draft. Now it’s yours.” And I had them all stand.  It was just a great moment because it was just a gelling of all the hard work that everybody had done.  And recognized of course the planning staff, and Ken Bowers and Mitch Silver. It was just a great moment.  It was very fulfilling to do that

Any other fascinating moments?

Just the interaction and chemistry.  You stay six years with something you develop a lot of camaraderie with people, staff, Planning Commission members.

If you had one piece of advice for your successor, if you could only tell them one thing, what advice would you give them?

I do know who the chair is going to be, Tom Bartholomew, because he is the vice chair right now. My advice would be patience, because you do really need a lot of patience and just a lot of sense of humor, sometimes.   It’s not so much funny, but sometimes you just have to sit back and say “Well, they goofed.  It’s O.K, move on.” A lot of tolerance

What’s next for you after your term ends on Dec 31?  Will you still be involved?  Or will you go back to your business and try to learn what regular food and sleep patterns are like?

I’ll probably take a little break, but knowing me I’ll probably looking for the next opportunity to volunteer at something. I think we all owe it to our community to try to do some good and I think that’s just how I am.

Do you have a history of public service that predates the Planning Commission?

No, I guess I’m more of a volunteering person.  I always volunteered at my children’s pre-schools, I volunteered at my children’s elementary, junior high school, I was always on the PTA, I always contributed to all those things, bringing things, doing things. So I feel like whatever the community at the time needs now.  My kids would just as soon not recognize me; want me to drop them of a mile away.

Oh yeah, they are that age, right? So, you’re not setting up a run for elected office or spinning off a subsidiary or taking over something?

Not right now. I’ll just wait for a volunteer thing.

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