HIGH POINT — The city’s longest-serving planning director will retire Aug. 1.
Lee Burnette has served as director of the department that helps guide the city’s growth since 1998, part of a 35-year career as a professional planner.
After beginning his career in Greenville, South Carolina, and continuing for eight years in his hometown of Eden, Burnette was hired as assistant planning director in High Point in 1997 and was promoted to the top spot a year later.
“My wife retired in March of this year, so that was probably the thing that started me thinking about (retiring) this year,” he said. “It’s a good time, I think, right now. It’s a transitional period. We’ve got a lot of projects finishing up or getting to a point of completion. I’ve got a full staff. I’ve got an experienced staff that can capably go on in my absence.”
Burnette’s department oversees development plans for construction projects and zoning cases that are heard by city boards and commissions, and produces long-range planning documents for the city as a whole, as well as for specific areas like the downtown mixed-use area plan for the city’s “catalyst project.”
During his tenure, the city implemented the Build High Point website that moved most of the permitting and inspections paperwork process online.
He also helped lead the process of rewriting the city’s development ordinance, which was adopted in 2017.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to stay around this long and have had really good staff to help do the work we needed to do,” Burnette said. “I’ve enjoyed working with the public and some of our boards and commissions over the years.”
The city saw explosive growth at times in north High Point while he was at the helm in the late 1990s and into subsequent decades.
“You talk about the changes — definitely, Skeet Club Road was a hot area at that time. We were getting a lot of residential pressure for development to happen that eventually did happen,” he recalled. “We would have (Planning and Zoning Commission) meetings that would go to 11 o’clock at night on zoning cases. Schools, traffic, stormwater — all were issues that we saw. And over the years, I think we’ve done a lot to sort of inform the public and improve our standards as a city.”
He credited City Council members with implementing neighborhood meetings for certain types of zoning cases as a way to better inform the public about growth that was coming.
“The city of High Point has had some very progressive leaders at the elected and the appointed level,” he said. “As a planner, you want to work in that kind of environment.”
An example of this was the process that led to the Core City Plan of 2007.
“That came from the council themselves at that time,” he recalled. “They were wanting something to happen with the urban core. They recognized that the city of High Point wasn’t going to expand forever. So the growth had to start to be refocused in.”
As for retirement, Burnette, 60, joked that, “as a planner, I have no plans. I have no intention to work. I’m going to enjoy my retirement with my wife and visit with friends and family, and whatever comes will come.”
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