New Hanover County Planning Director Chris O’Keefe is leaving this month after 11 years in the top management post and 27 years as a county employee.
The county announced in June that O’Keefe is retiring from New Hanover and has accepted a position as director of planning and zoning for Colorado’s Jefferson County, one of the four largest counties in that state.
His last day with New Hanover is July 21, and O’Keefe answered some questions recently about his time here.
GWBJ: What was the biggest challenge you faced as planning director?
O’Keefe: “The Special Use Permit … That was probably the single biggest challenge … trying to create Special Use Permit language that protected the community from potential impacts that could be brought about without the language but also encourage the growth in the economy and businesses and jobs to locate here.”
GWBJ: If you could change anything, on your own without needing approval from any other official, what would you change about New Hanover County in terms of planning and development?
O’Keefe: “I wish that we had a lot more public space along the waterways, and if I could change something we would have some tools in place to make that happen easier. We’ve done some things; there have been pots of money available to buy land, but unfortunately, there’s not a lot of that land left. So I think it is a big challenge that we face, and if I could change something it would be easier to protect it for the public’s use.”
GWBJ: What do you predict will be the biggest change in New Hanover County, in terms of planning and development, in five years? 10 years? Or the future?
O’Keefe: “In five years and 10 years, the changes may not be that apparent. But I think that the urban growth nodes that we’ve tried to identify in the unincorporated [areas of the] county are going to start to show some urban characteristics. I think we’re going to see some bigger buildings where job growth and more density, population density, are going to happen. And I think that’s important. I think if we want to continue to … attract growth to the area, we have to do it in a very smart way. We can’t just sprawl out into the open space. We’ve got to be smart about it. That means going vertical in the right locations. And I think those areas will likely be the cities of tomorrow.”
GWBJ: What lessons will you take with you or will translate when you go to Colorado?
O’Keefe: “There’s a lot of lessons, and I think there are a lot of similarities between here and where I’m moving. One of them is not topography because they’re very different, but they’ve experienced a lot of the same growth challenges that we are. And I think it’s important to always remember that everybody is a stakeholder when you’re talking about growth and that the relationships that you have as a planning director in the community are critical to making your plans successful and representative of what the community wants … All plans can take time to implement, but that persistence is always going to pay off.”