When Mike Sorensen became director of Fuquay-Varina’s planning department 27 years ago, he also became Fuquay-Varina’s entire planning department.
Almost three decades later, Sorensen, 68, is retiring after overseeing the town’s transformation from a small, rural community into an up-and-coming boom town with a seven-person planning department.
He will be replaced by a member of that department: Samantha Smith, a 33-year-old Pennsylvania native and a graduate of East Carolina University. She was chosen following a national search, the town said.
Smith joined Fuquay-Varina’s planning department in 2011 after working with the Town of Angier and Harnett County. Her experience in Fuquay-Varina will be an asset as she takes on her new role during the renewal of the town’s long-range planning documents and a period of heavy interest from developers.
In fast-growing places like Fuquay-Varina, the intentional planning of new developments – and the roads and utilities that serve them – is critical to ensuring the boom times don’t lead to a bust.
“(Developers) want to be somewhere where the town is also going to be a benefit to them,” Sorensen said. “People don’t talk about it, but when developers are looking at an area, they’re also interested in protection of their investment. For them to go in and build something that’s really nice, and then see things going in around it that aren’t so nice, that affects them.”
After Sorensen graduated from N.C. State University, he started his planning career in Cary, where he worked for 10 years before going into private practice as a landscape architect. After working on land-use and transportation plans for Fuquay-Varina, he decided to apply for the planning director position because, as he put it, “I was getting a little tired of beating the bushes to find work.”
Town Manager Adam Mitchell, who oversaw Smith’s hiring, said her youth is one of several reasons she’s the right person for the job. Smith was barely in elementary school when her predecessor arrived in Fuquay-Varina.
Mitchell has said the town’s priority of creating a more cohesive, urban space near the town’s downtown and commercial districts is a major planning goal for the town as it tries to attract young professionals and their employers to Fuquay-Varina.
“She’s a millennial, and we’re trying to attract millennials to our community,” said Mitchell, who also praised Smith’s energy and attention to detail. “Coming from that generation and having an understanding of what the millennial generation is looking for a community will help what we’re trying to accomplish as a town.”
Smith, whose salary as planning director starts at $82,500, started the new position Jan. 10.
She said she shares a focus on downtown but also an appreciation for its history.
“I think it’s really important that we maintain this sense of place that we have,” Smith said. “The fact that we have two downtowns make us unique, and it’s something that should be treasured – not just maintained, but supported. I want to make sure that as we grow, we don’t forget who we are and where we came from.”
Sorensen, who is staying on to help with the transition, is listed on the planning department’s website as “Planning Director Emeritus,” a title he’ll hold until he officially retires on March 31.
“There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sad about not being there,” Sorensen said. “After 27 years, I don’t know what else to do. I’m happy. I love the people here, and I feel like I’ve been able to contribute to the community.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan