Even showing up for church became difficult after Maria Palmer started speaking from the Town Council dais.
While she expected some people to disagree with her, the first-year council member said she wasn’t ready for the number of fellow Binkley Baptist churchgoers who stopped to tell her they were upset about something she had said or how she had voted.
“I need to do a better job of telling the public how much they don’t know,” she said. “Like at church, when they tell me, how could you vote for this? I start telling people, and they say, ‘I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that.’”
“I have thought of keeping a blog, and then I think – and this is going to sound really bad – people pick one little thing you said, and sometimes you didn’t mean it the way that it came out,” she said. “I hate to say this, but I think I’ve become a little defensive over the last six months.”
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After spending the summer in Peru caring for her mother, Palmer sat down Aug. 27 to talk about her experience and the council’s controversial rezoning of the Ephesus-Fordham district, which will speed and expand development in the area and take the council out of future project approval there.
The district is in one of six areas the Chapel Hill 2020 Plan identifies for future development. Palmer said she had spent years helping to develop the plan, which prepared her to make the decision. She admits she took a lot of heat for her vote, especially from supporters who said she had betrayed her social justice and affordable housing roots.
How would you explain your decision to disgruntled supporters?
Palmer: “I really don’t mind if I’m a one-term (council) person, because that’s the price you pay sometimes for getting ahead. When you make a decision that you truly believe in, but it’s not going to pay dividends for 15 years ... chances are people are not going to realize. ... I would rather be right than to serve another term, so I’m going to continue to vote for what I think is going to be the right thing to do for 10 years down the road, not just for the people right now who want me to fix something in their neighborhood.”
What about residents who were saying the council didn’t have all the information about Ephesus-Fordham and other projects?
Palmer: “I’m not uncomfortable with that, because I think sometimes you’re not going to get all the information until you move forward a little more, like Obey Creek. People say we can’t make that decision until we have all the data, but you can’t do the study if you don’t have a concept to work on. (Developer Roger Perry) decides what he wants to propose, and then we study and see if it works. I don’t see a problem with making a decision when you know what information is missing and when it’s going to come, and you’re comfortable with the partial decision you’re making.”
But Chapel Hill is quickly becoming unaffordable for most people, and the Ephesus-Fordham plan doesn’t offer any immediate solutions, since the DHIC affordable housing plan was delayed. Do you think the district is going to help low- and middle-income families?
Palmer: “I think if we have really viable student housing there, it will help, because right now, students are renting homes in the community. ... What we have is property that is old and inadequate being rented out to students who didn’t have other options, and that’s no way to have a healthy town.”
“One thing I think that saddens me is that I would like to lower taxes. I understand what it means to not be able to meet your obligations, but what do you cut? Whose job do you eliminate? People think that because I have the right politics, I can work miracles. It doesn’t work that way. ... Chapel Hill is unaffordable for the lower-paid working people. To be able to change that, I have to make decisions as part of Town Council and vote on things that those same people – the ones who want me to change Chapel Hill and make it more affordable – don’t want changed.”
You said earlier that you need “to do a better job telling the public how much they don’t know.” That reminds me of a comment you made at the May 12 meeting – just before the Ephesus-Fordham vote – that raised a few eyebrows:
“I think, just like pastors need to be ahead of their congregations and stake their careers when there’s a moral right or wrong, as a Town Council, we need to be ahead of our community if we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Would you like to elaborate?
Palmer: “Leadership is about vision, and that’s why you’re elected. ... You put in the hours and the work, and gather the information that 60,000 Chapel Hillians don’t have the time and the energy or the inclination to do. If you wait until there is consensus among the 60,000 residents on what we should build, it’s already too late. I have seen cities miss such incredible opportunities.”