Development is increasing in Gastonia, and the City’s Development Services Department is feeling it. The number of new structures in Gastonia in 2019 was up 101% from the year before. And the number of zoning permits, construction permits, site plan reviews and on-site inspections of construction sites handled by Development Services all increased in the past year.
“Growth is here,” says Rusty Bost, director of Development Services. “We don’t get to choose whether we grow or not. We choose how we grow.”
Choosing how the City grows requires vision, planning, collaboration and, sometimes, difficult decisions. And with the pace of growth increasing, Development Services’ staff is often scrambling to keep up.
“During the recession, we didn’t have as much workload,” Bost says. “But with Charlotte’s growth spilling in our direction, we’re seeing development in Gastonia now like we’ve never seen before.”
Builders and developers often interact first with the City’s Planning Division, one of three divisions in Development Services. The Planning Division, led by Jason Thompson, oversees zoning and rezoning requests. And zoning issues can spark controversy. “Zoning gets a lot of attention because of the public hearings, which are required by state law,” Bost says. “That’s where all of the people who don’t want a new shopping center in their backyard, for example, show up.”
The Planning Division also oversees long-range urban planning. Bost calls that the “fun stuff.” According to Bost, thinking 20 to 30 years into the future requires asking questions like “What do we want the City to look like?” and “How do we want the City to function?” The resulting comprehensive plans and long-range land-use plans are important guides for City officials as they make decisions about rezoning and development requests on individual pieces of land.
Also included in this division is long-range transportation planning. Randi Gates reports to Thompson in her role as administrator of the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization. Bost says the MPO is federally mandated and federally funded. “All of the jurisdictions in the three counties get together and collectively decide on regional, long-term transportation planning,” he says. Although the member municipalities sometimes have competing agendas and priorities, Bost says the MPO provides “good, commonsense results.”
After a developer gets the go-ahead to build on a site or redevelop it, the Engineering Division steps in. Specifically, it’s the Land Development group, which is part of the Engineering Division of Development Services. Under Assistant City Engineer Tucker Johnson, Land Development determines the size and location of water lines, sewer lines, stormwater drainage, roads and other public infrastructure components of a development. Land Development engineers review site plans and subdivision plans. They go to the sites to make sure that the contractor is doing what he promised and is using approved materials.
The Engineering Division also includes the Capital Projects group, led by City Engineer Gary Saine. Bost says that group oversees construction of major City initiatives from installing new water pipes to building the FUSE stadium. “We have engineers on staff who can create a set of construction plans on those capital projects and put it out to bid,” Bost says. “Then they follow the project through to completion.”
The third division in Development Services is Building Services, under Building Codes Administrator Brian Pruett. Inspectors visit the sites of new construction, remodeling projects and building additions to make sure the work meets the City’s building codes. Even new furnaces or air conditioning units must pass an electrical inspection conducted by Building Services to make sure they were installed correctly. “We don’t want people doing substandard work and jeopardizing a structure or people’s safety,” Bost says.
Also in Building Services is the Code Enforcement group. They investigate problems with tall grass, junk cars and illegal trash dumping throughout the City. They also make sure homes meet the minimum housing code. At the extreme, Bost says, a house can be demolished by the City if it isn’t repaired and made safe to live in. Code Enforcement has a sworn officer from the Gastonia Police Department working with them, helping to enforce City codes related to littering, abandoned cars, and structural safety.
Development Services is an umbrella agency covering a broad range of services. As growth and development in Gastonia heat up, Bost says his 45 employees are often stretched thin. Most jobs in his department are highly specialized with little or no cross training. “We make it work with constant collaboration and coordination,” Bost says. “Daily, sometimes hourly, on every project.” He says that level of teamwork is possible because the department’s employees all work in one building, the Garland Center. “If there’s a question, our employees know who to talk to and what types of information they will need. We can get the question answered and work out any problems,” Bost says.
Problem-solving is what engineers love to do, Bost included. He says the best part of his job is seeing a need, figuring out a solution, helping to implement that solution and seeing the positive impact.
The hardest part of the job, Bost says, is prioritizing problems. “There are always more problems than there is money to solve them,” he says. “How do you prioritize? How do you pick and choose where you spend the money? What’s your decision matrix for deciding to upgrade this sewer line versus that sewer line?” he asks. “There’s no doubt that the problems can be solved, but we don’t always have enough resources to go around.”
The department has fewer employees than it did when Bost started with the City in 1995. Some tasks are less labor intensive now, thanks to new technology. As examples, GPS and drones make it possible for the City’s land surveyors to get more work done in less time.
Development Services has a budget of $4.1 million. About 30% comes from the General Fund. Another 29% of the total comes from water, sewer, stormwater and electric fees as reimbursement for Land Development’s work. Fees paid by builders and developers provide 25% of the department’s budget. And about 16% comes from local, state and federal transportation planning grants.
Two time zones: present and future
Bost and his employees are used to living with one foot in today and the other foot in the future. They meet regularly with employees from other City departments and with jurisdictions beyond the City. With the Gastonia Fire Department, they are determining how the City’s rapid growth will affect when and where new fire stations should be built. With traffic planners and law enforcement, Development Services is researching ways to keep traffic moving while keeping drivers and pedestrians safe.
It means meeting today’s needs while anticipating the demands of tomorrow. “Our job is to make sure that the long-range planning doesn’t get lost in the push to fix problems now,” Bost says. “Construction plans tell where meters, poles and fire hydrants are supposed to go, to one-hundredth of an inch. We make sure those plans are followed. But another part of our job is to make sure the City doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture: the problem-solving picture.”
With Development Services’ guidance, the City can successfully live in two time zones, addressing the challenges of today and of the future. And with careful planning, we can make wise, intentional choices about how Gastonia grows.