Meet APA Virginia's Leadership Academy Class of 2024

Caitlin Aubut: I am currently a senior planner with York County’s Planning Division. My daily work involves all the various facets of comprehensive planning, in addition to providing support to junior planners, the Planning Commission, and serving as staff liaison to various committees. I began my career with York County in 2019 as a planner in the Division of Development Services and was promoted to my current position in the Planning Division last year. I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in Geographic Science & Community Planning with a certificate in Forest Management in 2018 from Northern Arizona University. I am a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and am also certified through the Virginia Association of Zoning Officials. During the course of this program, I hope to challenge myself and develop my ability to lead as an effective Planner. I’m excited to gain some diverse insight and wisdom from accomplished leaders and supervisors in our field.

Erin Dears: Hello, my name is Erin Dears, a Comprehensive Planner based in Suffolk, VA. My academic journey in urban planning began with a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. I have spent the last few years with the City of Suffolk, the decade before with Trader Joe’s, and previous service with AmeriCorps. Throughout these experiences, I have gained a passion for community engagement and the intricacies of the planning field. Looking ahead, my primary goal is to leverage my experience in housing-specific initiatives, with a particular focus on sustainable and affordable housing. I am excited about the opportunity to refine and enhance my leadership skills through collaborative learning, thereby fostering a heightened sense of confidence in my capabilities.

Diane Faye Gapas: My name is Diane Faye Gapas, and I am a Planning Administrator for Chesterfield County Public Schools. Born and raised in the Philippines, I hold an undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of the Philippines. Upon migrating here in Chesterfield, I pursued a Masters of Urban and Regional Planning degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. While in VCU, I worked as a Graduate Research Assistant. I achieved my AICP status in November 2021. I have been working as a school planner for almost six years. In this job I evaluate school attendance zones, facilitate the redistricting process, visit all schools annually for capacity assessment, compile and prepare enrollment projections, monitor residential developments and its potential impact on school facilities, and engage, coordinate and correspond with school and county staff, our school families and community and other stakeholders. I am an active member of the newly-established APA Public Schools and Communities Division. In my committee, I initiated the review of the survey questionnaire that was distributed to division members prior to last year’s National Planning Conference in Philadelphia. My hope is that through this Leadership Academy, I can expand and diversify my planning understanding by gaining insights from fellow planners who practice other planning fields. I also hope that in return, I may be able to share my experiences and background on school and public facilities planning with others. As I continuously strive to improve and grow, I hope to learn techniques, strategies and approaches on how I can effectively lead, and understand the core essence and value of being a leader.

Fayula Gordon: Hello! I am Fayula Gordon, currently serving as an Associate Planner at the Town of Vinton, with experience spanning over two years in the fields of urban planning and geospatial analysis. I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography (minor in Urban Planning), complemented by a GIS certificate from Park University and an Executive Leadership certificate from eCornell. My professional journey has seen me assume leadership positions as a General Manager and Manager Trainee, coupled with specialized training in Leadership with an emphasis on emotional intelligence. My overarching objective is to deepen my comprehension of Leadership within the context of Urban Planning and Local Government. Furthermore, I am dedicated to establishing meaningful connections with fellow professionals, fostering collaborative environments, and facilitating the exchange of ideas to address the multifaceted challenges encountered in urban planning. Additionally, I am focused on acquiring a repertoire of tools and strategies essential for navigating the intricate political landscape inherent in urban planning.

Gary Mitchell:

BS in History & Social Studies VCU1983

Masters in Urban & Regional Planning VCU 1991

University of Richmond, MBA - 2007

Town of Farmington, NY – Planning Director – 3 yrs.

Warren County, VA – Planning Director – 3 yrs.

Roanoke County, VA – Comprehensive Planner – 3 yrs.

Henrico County, VA – Neighborhood Planner – 2 yrs.

Spotsylvania County, VA – Special Projects Planner – 3 yrs.

Caroline County, VA – Planning & Zoning Administrator – 6 yrs.

Town of Colonial Beach – Deputy Town Manager – 6 yrs.

City of Richmond – Project Management Analyst – Water Resources 3 yrs.

Charles City County, VA – Community Development Director – 6 yrs.

Awards :

APA Citizen Participation Process – Roanoke County

CEPA VA – Distinguished Award – Carmel Church Community Plan - Caroline County and VaCO Award, and All-American City Designation

CEPA VA – Distinguished Award – Ladysmith Village – Caroline County

CEPA VA – Distinguished Award – Town of Colonial Beach Boardwalk Revitalization Award

CEPA VA now known as Plan-Virginia

Jessie Muniz: My professional background to date has been dedicated to building a better world through renewable energy. For over two decades I have held senior positions in renewable energy companies, actively participating in the successful development of solar and wind energy projects in the US, Canada and Brazil. Much of the development process involves external stakeholder engagement, including acting as the face of the project in public meetings. Through this I became exposed to and interested in the world of planning, and joined the VCU MURP program in 2022 as a part time student. I live in Richmond with my family. I attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate and also hold an MBA degree from the University of San Francisco, where I also led a major public art project, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. My planning interests include water resource and energy transmission planning, master plan creation, neighborhood revitalization, and prevention of homelessness. Key components I hope to take away from the program: working with fractious internal and external interests to create a unified vision for planning; how to best transition from a (related) non-planning career to a position of leadership in planning, learning from other leaders in planning.

Harrison Premen: Harrison Premen studied Urban & Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, receiving a bachelors in 2020 and a masters in 2021. Since the summer of 2021, he has been working as Culpeper County's Principal Planner. His first and so far most complex project has been serving as the lead staff member for the County's 2023 Comprehensive Plan. This involved managing public engagement, coordinating with the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, and drafting the document. Currently, he is working on a multitude of projects, such as implementing the County's revised Purchase of Development Rights Ordinance, drafting zoning text amendments, writing staff reports for conditional use permits and rezonings, representing the County in multiple committees, and other tasks as needed. He is excited to learn from professionals about leadership and to connect with like-minded professionals who share the interest of using planning as a means to facilitate a better world.

Christian Samples: I am Christian Samples and I have been a professional planner since 2007. I earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Urban Studies from San Francisco State University and a Masters of Public Administration from Boise State University. My previous experience includes 10 years of current and long-range planning with the City of Garden City, Idaho (a suburb of Boise, Idaho) and Canyon County, Idaho. I also spent two years in the private sector doing pre development work for Hawkins Companies, a nationwide commercial developer. I have been with the City of Manassas since June of 2020. I was hired as a Senior Planner, but promoted in July 2023 to the roles of Planning Manager and Zoning Administrator. As the Planning Manager, I am responsible for leading the City’s long-range planning program. This includes administering the 2025 Comprehensive Plan Update and overseeing development applications such as special use permits and rezonings. I also draft and submit the annual zoning update to the City Council for review and approval. As Zoning Administrator, I am responsible for providing official code interpretations to the public, providing guidance on the zoning ordinance to staff, and supporting code enforcement’s role in abating code violations. I hope the leadership class gives me more insight into providing better leadership and mentorship to my coworkers and the public. I hope to gain guidance into how to leader larger groups of people, to better mitigate conflicts, and provide for a workplace where both myself and my team can grow. I also look forward to meeting other planners in the Commonwealth and learn from their experiences.

Emilie Wolfson: Emilie has a diverse background in policy and community engagement projects covering open space and park planning, public participation, and environmental education, as well as reviewing land use applications in both California and Virgina. She has a strong background in public outreach, having worked as a program coordinator and environmental educator throughout California with a range of non-profit entities. She has prepared programmatic and project-specific environmental documents and developed existing condition reports and technical memorandums throughout her work as a consultant in the Bay Area for over 6 years. Emilie has also contributed to citywide urban agriculture plans, as well as parks and trail assessments for municipalities and counties across the state of California. While in Graduate School at UC Berkeley, Emilie led a class for students on important career advice, bringing in panelists throughout the planning profession. Currently, Emilie works as a Principal Planner for Prince William County, Virginia where she has worked for the past 2 and half years. In her capacity as a planner for PWC, Emilie has reviewed development applications including, one of the largest data center projects in Virginia, as well as prepared zoning text amendments, and facilitates office wide engagement activities including virtual and in-person community meetings. Emilie currently mentors and trains new staff (but does not directly supervisor any staff). Emilie hopes to gain knowledge on how to motivate/incentive staff, how to inspire staff to perform and how to have effective communication and employee evaluation. Ultimately my goal of this class is to use the skills I learn in order to move on to be a manager of my division within Community Development.