P&Z director retiring after 37 years of ‘constant conflict’

Jim Thomas’ successor is expected to lead overhaul of Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning procedures

Macon-Bibb+County+Planning+%26+Zoning+Executive+Director+Jim+Thomas+plans+to+retire+at+the+end+of+the+year.+

Mark Strozier - mbpz.org

Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Executive Director Jim Thomas plans to retire at the end of the year.

When Jim Thomas talks about his tenure with the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission, it’s with a smile in recognition of the complexities of the job.

“No matter what decision we make, someone is going to be upset. Someone is going to blow us up on social media,” said Thomas, who will be retiring at the end of the year.

Since 1984, Thomas has been in the middle of the county’s biggest zoning battles – from the east Macon landfill court fight, to commercial encroachment on Zebulon Road, to an abortion clinic poised to open in downtown.

Thomas, who turned 65 last year, postponed his retirement due to the global pandemic.

“I hated to leave the commission in a lurch because of COVID and we were all scattered,” he told the Center for Collaborative Journalism. “I thought I’d stay one more year and get us over COVID, but here we are again.”

P&Z chairwoman Jeane Easom, who has voluntarily served nearly a decade with Thomas, said he will be hard to replace.

“He’s exceptional. He has a very calm demeanor,’ Easom said. “He is always very professional. He always has his employees’ interests and welfare at the top of his list.”

“Unflappable” is the word P&Z Commissioner and NewTown Macon executive director Josh Rogers uses to describe Thomas.

“I think Jim is a really steady hand at the wheel. I think he’s incredibly experienced and has strong relationships with staff,” Rogers said.

Thomas’ predecessor Vernon Ryle hired him after Thomas worked for local architects Brittain, Thompson, Olson and Bray. Ryle appreciated Thomas’ experience, sense of humor and good-natured demeanor.

“I enjoyed working with him. I liked him a lot. He’s a good person,” Ryle said.

As Ryle was eyeing his own retirement in 2008, he groomed Thomas for the job.

Rising from a review officer to zoning director to assistant executive director, Thomas served as interim executive director for six months before taking the job permanently.

“I think I did every job in the organization, except being an inspector,” Thomas said.

Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning executive director Jim Thomas joined the staff as a review officer in 1984. (Mark Strozier – mbpz.org)

He “came here in a bassinet” as Thomas was only six months old when his family moved to Macon from Oklahoma. His father was the plant manager for the Ralston Purina plant off Broadway.

After graduating from St. Joseph’s Catholic School and Mount de Sales Academy, Thomas earned his Bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia.

He may be leaving his job, but his roots are firmly planted in Macon.

“I’m not going anywhere. This is home,” he said. “I have no grand plan, just some personal interests I want to pursue before it’s time to take a dirt nap.”

Thomas dabbles in watercolor painting, photography and woodworking. He has been anticipating spending more time with his wife, Jo, who is already retired from nursing.

After 37 years, zoning is in his blood and Thomas wants to make himself available to his successor.

“I think this will be a privilege, for whoever succeeds Jim, to have him around in retirement to at least talk to,” Rogers said.

Major changes also are expected in the way the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission operates.

“I just think if Jim was at a different stage in life, he’d be a great leader to help see these changes through. He clearly gets it and understands it,” Rogers said. “We need somebody who’s got five years to see it through.”

Thomas anticipates the commission radically amending the zoning codes toward a “completely different way of regulating development.”

Macon-Bibb County currently operates with codes that designate permitted uses within designated zoning blocks.

The commission has already begun amending its code when it relates to certain uses in downtown Macon, such as the indoor storage units recently approved for the old Telegraph building on Broadway.

Commissioners are expected to move toward a performance-based code system, or form-based, which is also known as impact zoning or flexible zoning. That system allows for greater scrutiny of a site’s ability to support development and its effect on the neighborhood and environment.

“It’s a fairly new planning theory and only about less than 10 percent of the communities around the country are using a form-based or performance-based code system,” Thomas said.

That process could move Macon from planning based on what the code allows to what should be built.

Commissioners often seem frustrated when there is nothing in the current code to keep them from approving another new convenience store even when there’s a new one already approved for the lot next door.

“Zoning codes for convenience stores are woefully inadequate,” Thomas said.

Last month, the commission enacted a 90-day moratorium on convenience stores so they could develop some new codes.

There isn’t even a specific “convenience store” section in the land use guidelines for what Thomas says can be an “attractive nuisance in many ways.”

Changing the county’s regulations will be a long and costly process.

Thomas cites Sarasota, Florida, which spent $1.5 million over five years to develop performance-based codes.

Macon also is set to update its comprehensive plan next year, which could spur those changes.

“It’s a major change… and change is hard,” Thomas said. “And the change involves people’s property and people’s property rights, so you have to proceed cautiously.”

Rogers is a proponent of making those changes and beefing up the planning aspect of the job.

“I don’t think our zoning right now is visionary. It’s reactionary,” Rogers said. “I think planning could be an opportunity, too, to look ahead to what we want the community to look like and use our land use regulations to chart a path between here and there.”

For Easom, commercial blight is a thorn in her side. Currently commissioners’ hands are tied when a business wants to build a brand new building across town, only to leave a vacant store behind.

“We’re going to have to deal with how to minimize the vacancy of all these commercial buildings,” she said.

Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning commissioners approved a second convenience store on Mercer University Drive at Log Cabin Drive at their June meeting. P&Z is expected to make policy changes that will allow for better planning and less redundancy in the future. (Liz Fabian)

The commission will turn to an outside agency to rewrite the regulations. In the potentially problematic political process that lies ahead, Easom will miss Thomas’ easy-going nature.

“I’ve never seen him upset,” Easom said. “That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been upset but he doesn’t go around with it on his shoulder.”

Myers McRae is conducting the search for a new P&Z executive director to navigate the personalities and agendas that come with the territory.

Thomas is looking forward to “kind of chill and decompress” come 2022.

He keeps current on his landscape architecture license and might do local projects in the future, or hole up in the house with paintbrush or hammer in hand.

“I don’t have any bucket list or anything,” he said. “I’m very comfortable at my painting easel or in my woodshop making sawdust.”

He’s proud of his team of 15 employees who came through the COVID-19 shutdown with  greater online services and a practically paperless operation.

While he plans to remain engaged in the community, the zoning fights will fall on someone else’s shoulders.

“Most folks, their home is their biggest investment,” Thomas said. “It’s not easy as there’s always somebody getting the short end of the stick. … You’ve got to balance the needs of the industry versus the larger community or neighborhood. It’s been 37 years of constant conflict.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be contacted at [email protected] and 478-301-2976.