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Auburn’s new planning director brings solutions-focused approach to new role

The City of Auburn welcomed Justice Wahid Cotton as the City's new planning director on Oct. 16.

For Auburn’s new planning director, city planning is about finding creative solutions to complex problems.

Whether balancing the needs of stakeholders in Clemson, South Carolina, or paving the way for farmers in rural Minnesota to get locally raised products into community grocery stores, Justice Wahid Cotton’s goal as a planner is to make a positive impact in the community he serves.

Wahid Cotton grew up in the Carolinas and Tennessee before pursuing a bachelor’s in environmental studies and sustainability from Northern Arizona University. He returned home to the South to obtain a master’s in city and regional planning at Clemson University.

He started work as a planning intern with the City of Clemson where he had the opportunity to work on Clemson’s comprehensive plan and other projects. His time in Clemson taught him that, while planning can be highly technical, it’s purpose is to help build a better community for residents.

“I really pride myself on tangible gains,” Wahid Cotton said. “Looking at how we address problems and eliminate issues is the allure of planning for me, especially on the local level.”

In June 2020, Wahid Cotton moved to rural Minnesota to serve as a community planner for the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. There he led engagement and research efforts during comprehensive planning initiatives for the cities of Willmar and Spicer.

In November 2021, he became the City of Willmar’s director of development and planning, where he followed projects from planning and design to execution. Being involved from concept to construction in projects ranging from backyard decks to 200,000-square-foot facilities allowed Wahid Cotton to see — and balance — all sides of the development process.

In addition to developments, Wahid Cotton was often on point for infrastructure issues. He led an initiative to upgrade the community’s broadband internet upload speeds, strengthening both economic development competitiveness and resident connectivity.

Wahid Cotton’s experience has helped him to appreciate the input of community stakeholders, the interests of property owners and the investments of developers in making decisions in keeping with the standards set by local zoning regulations.

When it came to looking for the next opportunity, “Auburn checked a lot of our boxes,” Wahid Cotton said. “The warmth of the culture, the proximity to family and a major university, the diverse thoughts and ideas and all of the amenities made Auburn a great fit for us.”

Wahid Cotton began his new position on Oct. 16. As planning director, he will oversee the administration of the City of Auburn’s comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations and will manage the day-to-day operations of the Planning Department.

“I’m excited about the leadership in place at the City of Auburn and the organization’s culture of providing excellent services,” Wahid Cotton said. “I’m excited to join the team and be a part of finding solutions and solving problems here in Auburn.”