County Planning Director Retiring, Heading For Job In Colorado

By Cece Nunn, posted Jun 20, 2017
New Hanover County Planning Director Chris O'Keefe (second from left) participates in a Comprehensive Plan meeting in 2014. (File photo)

New Hanover County's planning director is leaving his position after 11 years in the top management post and 27 years as a county employee.

The county announced Tuesday that Chris O'Keefe will retire at the end of July. O'Keefe served as principal planner for New Hanover's most recent CAMA Land Use Plan and directed the planning department through the county's first-ever Comprehensive Plan process.

O'Keefe's last day with New Hanover is July 21, and his current salary is $123,138, county officials said.

Although retiring from New Hanover, O'Keefe's planning career will continue. He has accepted a position as director of planning and zoning for one of the four largest counties in Colorado, according to a county news release.

"This is a big loss for the county,” said County Manager Chris Coudriet in the release. “Chris O’Keefe has been an effective voice in our community for responsible development, planning for connectivity and environmental stewardship. His knowledge and expertise will be missed, but this is an excellent opportunity for Chris and his career.”

Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said O'Keefe has "always been a good conduit" when it came to running ideas past him. "He's done a great job for the county and it's sad to see him go."

Steve Hobbs, chairman of the Cape Fear Realtors' Governmental Affairs Committee, agreed.

“He has been a voice of reason and balance as the county grapples with growth,” Hobbs said in a Cape Fear Realtors news release.

Moore said he hopes the county's new planning director will have "first and foremost common sense with the world that we live in as far as the development world, the building world. We have to use common sense approaches. There's lots of things that are required, as far as ordinances, but in terms of on the ground, we have to apply common sense to things every day to make sure they work. But we also want somebody that's going to be really looking to, I think in the long-run, embrace where the county is heading."

He said the county is becoming more urban every day, and a new planning director will need to recognize that.

"They need to understand the different dynamics as far as density, particularly as it relates to zoning districts, and how that's going to relate to job creation and economic development and residential and commercial growth, but at the same time, strike that balance with the community as well," Moore said. "Really, it's going to come down to being a good consensus builder. That's something Chris has done well, particularly with the Special Use Permit and a lot of the planning issues in the Comprehensive Plan, bringing different sides of the table together to work towards a consensus. That's how we'll achieve a lot of the community's goals, particularly those goals in the Comprehensive Plan."

New Hanover officials said Tuesday that they had not yet determined when the position of county planning director will be advertised.

Shane Johnson, COO of Cape Fear Realtors, said in the group's release, “We’ve enjoyed working directly with Chris as he was consistently patient, listening to all viewpoints. Often issues arise that involve conflict, and Chris was a master at maintaining a calm approach and bringing together those that disagreed. He is truly a strong community leader and will be missed. We wish him and his family the best.”

Tuesday's release said that among his other accomplishments during his employment with New Hanover County, O'Keefe:

  • led the county’s watershed management advisory board in protecting significant properties along the Intracoastal Waterway, tidal creeks and inland waterways;
  • worked to create and promote the Lower Cape Fear Stewardship Development Awards program, which recognizes and awards development projects that go above and beyond requirements to be good stewards of environmental resources;
  • developed the first mixed-use development ordinances including the River Front Mixed Use District and the Exceptional Design Zoning District, which encourages sustainable development practices in suitable locations through providing development incentives;
  • served as chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee for 26 years, promoting safe bicycling facilities and working to improve the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers;
  • and worked to create a model for the collection of cost to construct water and sewer capital projects.

"His leadership created an atmosphere of customer service excellence, transforming both the Planning and Inspections departments," the release said.

O'Keefe was not immediately available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

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