David Proffitt
David Proffitt

Effective Monday, Jan. 11, David Proffitt is retiring as chairman of the Board of Zoning Adjustment and vice chairman of the Planning Commission. He has served on both since 2009.

Those are two critical leadership positions in terms of development in Louisville. He, along with other board members, make decisions that can change the face of Louisville neighborhoods for decades to come.

Before vacating the positions, Proffitt sat down with Insider Louisville to talk about his tenure over lunch at Check’s Cafe in Germantown where he eats lunch two or three times a week.

Proffitt said he decided to retire because he didn’t have adequate time to devote to his duties as a zoning board and planning commission member. His day job as senior architect in the University of Louisville’s Department of Planning Design and Construction has become more demanding.

“I just felt like this was the time for me,” Proffitt said. “I know it may not have been for the city, because I know there are a number of big cases coming up that they wanted me on for whatever reason.”

Still pending are decisions on whether to approve conditional use permits for Swift Pork Co. and a west Louisville anaerobic digester. Both projects have been highly controversial.

Proffitt declined to comment on the digester project, which has a second zoning board meeting scheduled for Jan. 21 (after he leaves) for fear that he could influence other board members’ opinions.

“It’s too important of a case for me to do that,” he said. But if he was still in charge at the time, he added, he would only allow zoning board members to talk about the project on Jan. 21 unless someone in attendance has new information to put forth.

Once all the testimony and citizen input was given, the first zoning meeting regarding the digester project lasted about eight hours. The meeting is a perfect example of Proffitt’s policy to make sure anyone who wants to speak gets the opportunity, even if it means staying until after 2 a.m.

“I want to hear everything everybody has to say because somebody may say something that gives me pause to think maybe I was wrong or maybe I didn’t think about this issue hard enough, and that’s important,” Proffitt said.

For example, Proffitt was swayed to continue the digester case into 2016 after opponents of the project stated it did not fit into the California Neighborhood Plan, an outline of what residents want to see in the neighborhood. What that plan says must be considered, he said.

He learned to listen to everyone from former planning commissioner and Okolona Fire Chief Richard Carlson, Proffitt said.

“(Carlson) was wonderful about going around and making sure everyone was heard on the board and out in the audience,” he said.

Proffitt often warns people not to repeat what others have said but inevitably some do. While he has interrupted speakers before to reiterate that they should not repeat points, speakers have been allowed to continue.

“You hate like heck to have to just say ‘no, go sit down,'” he said. “How rude and improper would that be for somebody who already is sitting out in the audience and already feels very contentious because we are the ones sitting up there, not them, that is making the decisions for them.”

Outside criticism

The Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Planning Commission both have been criticized as too development friendly.

Proffitt disagreed with that assessment, adding that he weighs each case on its individual merits. “I hope people made their own value judgements based on their own feelings and concerns.”

The vast majority of the development waivers, variances and conditional use permits that go before the zoning board are approved.

In 2015, Proffitt voted against three of the 132 agenda items the board considered last year. One was the proposed west Louisville Walmart, which ended up moving forward anyway but is now tied up in a lawsuit.

Proffitt argued that most items that come before both the zoning board and the Planning Commission tend to be minuscule in scope and affect one homeowner and his or her immediate neighbors. They aren’t the developments that will change the face of Louisville and make the news.

“It is not those big-picture developments that people think of,” he said.

The boards also have been criticized for a lack of diversity and for not representing the racial makeup of Louisville. Attorney Steve Porter currently is arguing a legal case that the zoning board’s makeup violates state statute, and therefore, decisions it makes are invalid.

Proffitt said diversity is about more than race and ethnicity. It’s also about having people from neighborhoods all around Louisville on the board.

“I understand the requirement by law about having a diverse board, and I don’t disagree with it at all, but I also don’t think that it’s proper for someone to say that I can’t make a judgement about a particular part of town just because I am not of that particular race or ethnicity,” he said.

Although Porter and Proffitt regularly end up on the opposite side of various debates, both men respect each other.

“My email to him is “Say it ain’t so, David,’ ” Porter said of Proffitt’s retirement. “I will be sorry to see him go.”

He added that Proffitt is known for his deep analysis of each matter and concern for quality design.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s office has not named Proffitt’s replacement yet, but Chris Poynter, the mayor’s spokesman, said a decision will be made as soon as possible.

Proffitt offered advice for whomever fills his roles.

“Go into it with a firm belief that what you are going to do can shape not only the community but the lives of the people of around any development you are working on, and take it with that grain of seriousness,” he said. “And understand the Land Development Code and Cornerstone 2020 and how they relate. And do your homework.”

Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]