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Jackson hires planning director

fr tdadirectorAfter plugging along for seven months without one, Jackson County will welcome a new planning director when 2016 begins.

Michael Poston, currently planning director for Yadkin County just west of Winston-Salem, is a Western Carolina University graduate who’s excited to begin living and working in Jackson County. 

“I have a great love of Western North Carolina, and certainly my time in Jackson County was very special to me, so basically that whole area is just kind of woven into my life,” Poston said. 

Holding a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications as well as a master’s in public affairs — both from WCU — Poston is also a certified planner with 10 years of experience in North Carolina. He has the credentials and experience to succeed, as well as the personality and background, said Vicki Greene, a Jackson County commissioner and member of the planning director search committee. 

“One of the other commissioners described him as a good fit, and I think that’s the best evaluation of him,” Greene said. “He will be a good fit. He’s approachable, he’s funny, he’s knowledgeable.”

Of the four candidates called for an in-person interview, Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said, “I felt the most comfortable really with him. I think Michael (Poston)’s going to fit in real well.”

Commissioners are excited to welcome Poston on board, but he almost missed out on the job. The county received more than 10 applications for the planner’s position, and from that stack the search committee chose the top five for a phone interview. Poston made that initial cut but was not one of the three candidates called in for an in-person interview.

Commissioners offered the job to one of the three, but that person decided the job was not a good fit after all, leaving the search committee hanging. The other two candidates who’d interviewed in person weren’t what commissioners were looking for, so the search committee went back to the original five and revisited Poston’s application. Whatever had been off in his phone interview to prevent him from making the initial round of in-person interviews wasn’t evident when he came to Jackson County, Greene said. 

“He did a great interview, with the search committee and then with the commission,” Greene said. 

When Poston arrives at his new office Jan. 19, he’ll have a full plate of meaty tasks to greet him. With the planning director’s seat vacant since May, the to-do list has gotten longer and longer. Last week, commissioners appointed a new cohort of planning board members, so Poston will have the added challenge of forming a team and a rhythm to surge forward. 

“A big part of his job is to get to know his planning board members,” McMahan said. 

Poston will also be in charge of guiding the committee working on a comprehensive plan for the county, working with the planning board to review the ordinance governing industrial development, finding a company to help develop a new ordinance to pull all of Jackson County’s planning rules under one heading and hiring a new staff person in the planning office, a position commissioners have already funded but decided to put off hiring until the planning director was in place. 

When asked how he plans to approach this hefty list of tasks, however, Poston said his first priority will be to determine how the community wants him to approach them. 

“I think what makes planning so interesting is trying to find that balance between the collective good and the private property rights,” Poston said. “It’s getting in and truly understanding where that balance is in each community, because each community is going to be a little bit different.”

That response points to what McMahan sees as Poston’s biggest strength. 

“His style of management, his philosophy about how to deal with customers and citizens — he’s a great listener,” McMahan said.

That, combined with Poston’s desire to make a home in Jackson County — the 38-year-old is married with children ages 9 and 5 — bodes well for his tenure there, Greene said. 

“He doesn’t see himself somewhere else in five or 10 years, so that’s a good thing,” she said. 

Despite recommendations from the firm Jackson paid earlier this year to conduct a performance audit of the planning and permitting and code enforcement departments, Poston’s role will be identical to that of former planner Gerald Green. The report from Benchmark Planning had suggested that commissioners hire either a new position to jointly oversee the two departments or search out a planning director with experience in both fields to offer some dual oversight. However, commissioners decided to maintain the existing structure while slightly rearranging which department is responsible for what and encouraging collaboration between the two. 

That’s not to say that Poston will slide into a stagnant structure. Soon after arriving, he’ll be asked to help choose a new planner to join the existing two-person team of Caroline Edmonds and John Jeleniewski, whose title last week changed from code compliance officer to land use administrator, reflecting his newly defined responsibilities for enforcing steep slope rules and other land development ordinances. 

And when Poston attends his first planning board meeting in January, six of the 11-member board’s representatives will be there for the first time as well. Chairperson Sarah Thompson, David Brooks, Tom Rodgers, Clark Lipkin, Ed Weatherby and Ron Story will be coming off the board. Filling those seats will be Scott Ogle, an N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agent; Vickey Wade, former program director of local government training at Western Carolina University, Steve Johannessen, a Cashiers singer, artist and web designer; Ken Brown, a home builder and director of the environmental group the Tuckaseigee Community Alliance; and Kirk Stephens, a cybercrime technology instructor at Southwestern Community College. Commissioners will name a sixth new member in January. Scott Baker, who is currently the board’s vice chair and took the lead on the Cullowhee planning effort, will be the board’s new chairman, with the board invited to make a recommendation to commissioners for the vice chair seat.

Since the 2014 commissioner election, the planning board’s composition has changed dramatically, with the configuration shifting from a majority that favors decreased regulation to one favoring land use regulation. Two of the outgoing members, Clark Lipkin and David Brooks, had sat on the board since 2011 and been in the anti-regulation camp. 

With Brown, who has a more pro-regulation philosophy, replacing Lipkin, the board is likely to wind up with a more pro-regulation bent. Commissioner Charles Elders, who initially appointed Brooks, is less favorable to regulation than the other commissioners and named Ogle in Brooks’ place. The other four new members, however, will likely carry forward the pro-regulation philosophies held by the majority of sitting commissioners. 

“I would have to say that the planning board is a little more ordinance-friendly,” McMahan said. 

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