Orange County

Here’s what Chapel Hill council candidates think about taxes, traffic and other issues

Voters will add at least one new person to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Nov. 5.

In total, four council seats are up for election this year. Incumbent council members Jessica Anderson, Nancy Oates and Michael Parker are taking on four challengers: Sue Hunter, Tai Huynh, Renuka Soll and Amy Ryan.

Council member Donna Bell decided this year not to seek re-election to another four-year term.

Early voting in the Nov. 5 election starts on Wednesday, Oct. 16, and is open in Chapel Hill to everyone within the town limits, including the portion of Chapel Hill that lies in Durham County.

Get more details about each candidate at tinyurl.com/y6enlfd9. Here’s what we recently asked the seven council candidates:

Development

Is there a local development that you think was a mistake? Is there one that you like?

Jessica Anderson: The Ephesus-Fordham Form Based Code — which was approved by a previous council — lacked the necessary requirements to meet our community’s needs. This resulted in the Berkshire apartment building, which added more luxury apartments at the expense of much-needed affordable housing and commercial and public space. Greenfield Commons and Greenfield Place are examples of developments I like because they meet a community need — affordable housing for limited-income seniors and low- to middle-income families.

Sue Hunter: The Berkshire could have been a better building. The poor design created a backlash against form based code, which is unfortunate, since form based code is a good tool that has been successful in other places. The library is a beautiful building and meeting space that brings the community together. I will add that in terms of location, the Berkshire has very good access to transit, whereas the library does not. Transit-oriented development is important.

Tai Huynh: Blue Hill (Ephesus-Fordham) was not implemented well because community benefits were not prioritized. My idea for holding developers accountable in the Blue Hill District would be to pass a revised Form-Based Code that has community benefit requirements attached. Thereby, requiring developers to choose and implement from a list of community benefits that match our community’s priorities in order to qualify for the expedited process.

Southern Village is an example of a good development because it is on a transit corridor, has various housing types, promotes small businesses, and encourages walkability. Residents in Southern Village can walk their kids to school, go grocery shopping, and connect with neighbors on various playgrounds and in community gathering spaces.

Nancy Oates: One I like: Courtyards at Homestead; and the market likes it, too. It sold out almost immediately. A project I wish had gone differently was Amity Station. The process was way too long and had too many places for it to derail, which it ultimately did. The project would have brought year-round residents to live downtown, set a benchmark for affordable housing, and made a significant cash contribution to the Northside neighborhood fund.

Michael Parker: The Shortbread Lofts on Rosemary Street are not well conceived. The addition of more students to Rosemary was questionable — if we truly want Rosemary to be the center of entrepreneurial activity — and the design of the building is quite poor.

The nearby AC by Marriott works quite well. Its height and massing fit in well with the surrounding area and its lobby/bar could become a good gathering spot for entrepreneurs.

Amy Ryan: Mistake: Blue Hill District. It was a good idea to redevelop this aging commercial area, but the final ordinance went against the adopted community plan, did not take road and parking needs into account, threw away environmental protections and affordable housing provisions, is out of scale with the community, and has not produced the commercial space we wanted.

Like: Southern Village. Residents can walk to school and daily-needs shops, there’s an active community gathering space, it has lots of trees in the village center and on residential streets, and it offers a good diversity of housing types, from apartments to townhomes to single-family residences.

Renuka Soll: I like the Sancar Turkish cultural center being built on East Franklin Street because it creates a welcoming space for immigrants and Muslims at a time when these communities are under attack and because it sets a standard for environmentally sustainable construction in Chapel Hill, which I hope future projects will emulate. By contrast, I think that the Berkshire apartment building on Elliot Road was a mistake. That building has made that area unwalkable.

Is the town doing enough to attract commercial development?

Jessica Anderson: We’re moving in the right direction. We’ve established incentive guidelines that helped attract Wegmans — a “destination” store expected to produce higher tax revenue than any other store in Chapel Hill — and add office space in Glen Lennox. We also created the Millhouse Road Enterprise Zone to house light industrial companies. These changes — along with planned commercial development along the future bus rapid transit corridor — will go a long way to creating jobs and rebalancing our tax base.

Sue Hunter: The town recognizes that commercial development is much needed to ensure that Chapel Hill is a sustainable and affordable community with a fiscally sound future. I’m supportive of the vision of Chapel Hill as an innovation hub and agree with the town strategic investments to incent development of new office space and support start-ups and business incubators. It’s critical to also support our current small businesses to not only survive, but to thrive for the long-term.

Tai Huynh: No. There is no wet lab space, and Chapel Hill has not built office space in the past seven years. Furthermore, the town’s permitting process is not streamlined — turning business owners away from Chapel Hill.

I will attract start-ups with an innovation district to increase our commercial tax base. I will push that the town assign case workers to each business going through the permitting process so that companies can navigate the approval process without convolution.

Nancy Oates: No, we could recruit businesses drawn to the intellectual capital on campus. Town and gown would both benefit if we had a stronger partnership. I’d like to see staff being more proactive about what businesses we need in town and what those businesses are looking for in a town. We could tout our advantages: We have flexible office space that could be publicized on the town’s webpage that lists all available commercial space.

Michael Parker: We are doing a great deal — more than Chapel Hill ever has. We have, for the first time, developed an incentives policy and are using it to bring commercial development to Chapel Hill. We have granted incentives to Wegmans and to Glen Lennox for over 450,000 square feet of office space. Another arrangement that could bring a substantial number of new jobs is pending.

Amy Ryan: Yes — and we’ll do more. The town and council, and the mayor especially, have been working tirelessly to recruit and retain businesses. We’ve offered some strategic incentives to have the market bring us the space these companies need and to encourage a major sales-tax generator to locate here instead of in a neighboring towns. And we’re partnering with the university to nurture young companies, and then working to retain them in town as they grow.

Renuka Soll: I am sure that the town is working hard at this, yet we still aren’t getting enough commercial development. As a result, residential property owners have to bear the burden of funding local government services. Rather than trying to entice outside companies to relocate here, I would like to focus on creating the conditions that will enable homegrown companies and start-ups, such as biotech and IT businesses, to remain in Chapel Hill as they grow.

Is enough being done to balance housing and commercial development with environmental protection, including the preservation of trees and wetlands?

Jessica Anderson: State and federal laws make this challenging, but we’re on the right track. We’ve been working to improve our tree ordinance to better protect mature trees and conducting sub-watershed studies to help identify mitigation strategies. We’re also building several stormwater facilities. Looking ahead, I will push for stronger requirements and new, green technologies aimed at preventing the impacts of the higher intensity storms we’ve been experiencing due to climate change.

Sue Hunter: Chapel Hill made a strategic decision about growth when the rural buffer was put into place, that we would grow inward rather than sprawl outward. That was a good decision and we’ve maintained our commitment to the rural buffer for over 30 years. Chapel Hill is not an island, and we work with Carrboro and Orange County to maintain green space and protect wetlands. Coupling growth with multimodal infrastructure is part of environmental protection too.

Tai Huynh: No. We need to build downtown and closer to downtown so that we can preserve trees and wetlands by the urban services boundary. We need to attract innovative developers with a streamlined permitting process so that we can integrate green roofs/walls and tree canopy into our developments. Additionally, we should strengthen our tree ordinance so that we are replanting the diameter of the trees we cut down.

Nancy Oates: No, we need to get serious about climate change, beginning with valuing green space.

Michael Parker: In general, Chapel Hill has done a good job with this. However, as we develop more compactly, we need to be sure that we are getting the green space benefits of this denser development. That has not proven to be the case in Blue Hill, and we need do a better job of this if we are to meet our climate action goals and create the kinds of spaces our residents rightly value.

Amy Ryan: No. For a long time in Chapel Hill we’ve prioritized density as our climate/environment solution. I think it’s time to shift the balance and put more “green” into our sustainability planning, working harder to protect our tree canopy and stream buffers and grow a system of natural spaces. The corollary to providing density is offsetting it with natural spaces, and we need to do a better job with that side of the equation.

Renuka Soll: No. I would like to see Chapel Hill do a better job of balancing development with environmental stewardship. I would like to see a storm water evaluation during the concept plan stage, and an environmental impact analyses included with development applications. We need to preserve sensitive land, limit the loss of canopy trees being cut, and preserve and increase green space when possible. We have neglected watershed planning until recently.

Do you support extending urban services to the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction area south of U.S. 15-501?

Jessica Anderson: No. If we extend urban services to this area, we risk gentrification and sprawl — outcomes that are counter to our strategic goals and interests. However, we must consider that this important corridor is viewed as the future gateway to high-growth areas like Chatham Park. If we don’t plan proactively, there’s a good chance others will “plan” for us. Therefore, I support embarking on a process that involves soliciting public input, holistic planning, and a needs assessment.

Sue Hunter: Preservation of the rural buffer and open space is an important value, and reflects our commitment to a compact growth strategy. In planning how we grow, we must also be mindful of the development that is occurring beyond our boundaries in Chatham County. Any future decision-making would need to be done thoughtfully and in collaboration with the community.

Tai Huynh: I support exploring the possibility of extending urban services to the extraterritorial jurisdiction south of 15-501, and will engage impacted residents so that they get the arrangement they want.

Nancy Oates: That area was designated low density to compensate for the high density of Southern Village, so I’d have to hear a convincing argument about why that compensation is no longer needed. Better technology for stormwater runoff? A compelling reason to cut down trees? We need to honor the commitments prior councils made, unless changing needs and conditions render those commitments detrimental to the town.

Michael Parker: Not at the present time. While it may make sense to do so at some point in the future, I believe that we have ample development opportunities within our urban services boundary at present and we are not seeing reasonable development pressures in this area.

Amy Ryan: No. I support the integrity of the urban services boundary and the rural buffer that it has created, so I don’t think we should extend urban services into the ETJ along South 15-501 or east in the Mount Carmel Church Road area. The only exception I would ever even consider would be if there was an opportunity to provide a 100% affordable housing community, serving a low- to mid-AMI population, on property adjacent to the planned North-South BRT line.

Renuka Soll: No. A water and sewer boundary agreement governs the area, covered by the 1986 Comprehensive Land Use Plan. A public meeting was held in spring 2019 to solicit comment from area residents about the prospect of extending urban services into the extraterritorial jurisdiction area. The meeting was well attended and almost all speakers, including two former county commissioners, opposed the idea. Once urban services are extended into rural areas, dense development almost invariably follows.

Housing

Do you support duplexes, triplexes and quads in single-family neighborhoods? Where?

Jessica Anderson: Yes. I believe that this type of approach to accommodating future growth would not only help address our housing needs, but align with our values. As someone who grew up in a duplex, I’ve seen how they can help neighborhoods maintain their character and cultivate an inclusive, integrated community. In addition to providing affordable housing, they allow individuals to build wealth instead of corporations. I support these units in any neighborhood with large enough lots.

Sue Hunter: I do support adding these types of multifamily housing to single-family neighborhoods where allowed. Increased density offers opportunities for housing affordability and equity, and is in keeping with the compact growth strategy established by the rural buffer. Over 40,000 people commute into Chapel Hill to work every day. It is imperative that we increase housing opportunities within town limits to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

Tai Huynh: Yes, we need to move away from strictly single-family neighborhoods. On council, I will advocate for mixed-use, mixed-income developments that have a range of housing types. We should build duplexes, triplexes, and quads along transit corridors so that residents can easily access the bus to commute to work and make other important trips.

Nancy Oates: In theory, it sounds good, but in practice, multifamily redevelopment would be built only in middle-class and modest neighborhoods, affecting people who have invested in a lifestyle and have less flexibility to move elsewhere than people in wealthier neighborhoods. I’m fine with a new neighborhood built with mixed housing types. But I object to people of modest means being treated with less concern than people who have more money and clout.

Michael Parker: I think that duplexes, etc., are both sensible and necessary in many of our single-family neighborhoods if we are to meet our affordable housing and equity goals. Without further study, I do not feel comfortable listing specific neighborhoods or locations at present.

Amy Ryan: Yes. We need to increase our stock of smaller, more affordable housing if we’re going to retain diversity in town and provide more housing choice. I prefer to do small-scale infill of this type (think Trinity Park in Durham) than build more massive apartment buildings. This type of infill would be especially appropriate in denser downtown neighborhoods and along our major transit corridors, and in neighborhoods that already have duplex or multifamily housing.

Renuka Soll: Yes. If well designed, it can be made compatible with single-family housing patterns and would be accepted by the residents of such neighborhoods. This type of housing should be encouraged in neighborhoods that have good access to public transit and/or that are within biking/walking distance of shop and services.

Do you support mid-rise (four to 10 stories) multifamily buildings and where?

Jessica Anderson: I support four- to seven-story multifamily buildings in areas already at or near this density level. I also support them along transit corridors — with transitions in height approaching lower density areas. We should negotiate for community benefits (e.g., affordable housing) in exchange for density bonuses. All buildings should incorporate strong urban design features like human scale architecture, walkability, active green space, and good placemaking. In appropriate places, such as transit nodes, I prefer mixed use (retail and commercial on lower floors).

Sue Hunter: Mid-rise multifamily buildings are good options for certain locations in Chapel Hill, such as downtown and near transit-accessible locations such as Blue Hill, the 15-501 corridor, and the proposed North-South bus rapid transit line. Taller buildings provide an opportunity to add units to our supply of affordable housing, through our inclusionary zoning ordinance or in exchange for a density bonus.

Tai Huynh: Yes, mid-rise multifamily buildings attract younger families, and will keep our town a vibrant, cultural center. I will support mid-rise buildings closer to downtown, and along transit corridors — especially along the North-South corridor that will align with the bus rapid transit system.

Nancy Oates: Yes, if the carrying capacity of the land makes it feasible and it does not have a deleterious impact on others who have invested in the town. If we have not planned for the traffic that project would bring, if it blocks nearby residences from the sun, if it drives out modestly paid residents and middle-income families, I don’t see the benefit to the town.

Michael Parker: I support mid-rise multifamily buildings, but the four- to 10-story spread is rather large. While I believe four-story buildings would be appropriate in many parts of our town — largely along transit corridors — at present I think that 10-story buildings need to be confined to selected locations downtown.

Amy Ryan: Yes — but for me, “mid-rise” is the lower end of that range, and means a multi-story building that remains at a human scale of around three or four stories. I think buildings of this size could fit nicely into the fabric of our community in many places where multifamily is allowed. I can see possibly going to six stories at our key transit nodes, if the project provides community benefits (like affordable housing) and maybe going a floor or two taller at the central core of some lots in downtown, where larger multifamily could help support a vibrant commercial district.

Renuka Soll: It depends. It should fit in scale with nearby buildings, be built sustainably, have enough affordable housing, etc. An urban design rule of thumb is that the height of buildings should not exceed the width of the street frontage. So taller buildings should be on major corridors where streets are wider. With more people in these buildings, we need to make sure that infrastructure (such as transit, shopping, parks) is in place to support it.

Property taxes

Would you vote for a tax increase?

Jessica Anderson: No. Based on current financial forecasts and our town’s responsible stewardship of resources during the last few years, a tax increase is unnecessary. While I am not opposed to tax increases when we get something of value for return (i.e., the $10 million affordable housing bond), we have no need to add to the already significant tax burden shouldered by our residents.

Sue Hunter: Our taxes are high, and this is a concern for many of our residents. My first preference will always be to diversify our tax base and focus on attracting more commercial development to decrease the tax burden on residents. It’s important to remember that tax increases may be needed to pay for bonds approved by voters, as was the case with the affordable housing bond.

Tai Huynh: I will evaluate proposals and projects, work with my colleagues, and assess current sources of funding for project implementation before making any decision to increase taxes. A principle that I will always stand by is making sure that we are spending every dollar we currently have as effectively as possible before voting for a tax increase. Increasing our pool of money does no good if we are not spending the money we already have wisely.

Nancy Oates: No.

Michael Parker: This is not a question that one can give a blanket answer to. While no one wants to increase taxes, sometimes town priorities/needs make it necessary. The key is to make sure that the need is amply demonstrated, that there are no feasible alternatives, and that a good community conversation has been had.

Amy Ryan: Not anytime soon. One of my goals is to make Chapel Hill as affordable as possible to support a diverse population, and keeping tax increases in check is an important part of achieving that goal. Right now, the town’s balance sheet is in good shape, sales tax revenue is robust, and we have new commercial sites coming online soon — like Wegmans — that will further help to take pressure off our residential tax base.

Renuka Soll: Because our residential tax burden is already relatively high, I would first seek other ways to generate the needed funds or reduce costs. I think that we can prioritize spending to avoid a tax increase. However, if there are services that the community wants and is willing to pay for and a tax increase is the only way to generate the needed revenue, then I would vote for it.

Traffic, bikes, pedestrians

Does the town have a traffic problem?

Jessica Anderson: Yes. This problem is rooted in two things: the large percentage of residents who commute in and out for work by car and pass-through traffic. It’s imperative that we continue our work to attract and retain employers and create walkable employment “districts” that are accessible without a car (e.g., the planned bus rapid transit corridor). We also need to continue to expand our transit system, providing more service with strong regional connections.

Sue Hunter: Our fare-free transit system has helped to keep traffic from growing significantly within the town, although there are still problem intersections that require attention. Our real problem is one of connectivity — we need to make it easier and safer for people to get around on foot, by bike and on transit. As we start the planning process for a regional transit solution, our plans must address the through traffic coming from Chatham County.

Tai Huynh: There are two main bottlenecks: commuters on 15-501 and I-40, and parents driving their kids to school. I will incentivize town employees who commute to use public transit by giving them free GoPasses. And, with more affordable, transit-oriented housing, residents can work and live in town without creating traffic. Additionally, I will advocate for an internal network of bike lanes and greenways so that children can safely bike or walk to school without having to get on the road.

Nancy Oates: Yes.

Michael Parker: It does, largely during rush hours. It should be noted that this traffic is due largely to the approximately 40,000 people who come to Chapel Hill every day to work and the 20,000 people who leave every day to work elsewhere, and only about 10,000 people live and work in CH. Thus, we have a pressing need for robust regional transit solutions.

Amy Ryan: Yes. Not everywhere, but some roads turn into parking lots at certain times. We need to do a better job with traffic analysis during our development applications, looking at impacts across broader areas and with more accurate input for our prediction models. I’ve also been advocating during the Future Land Use Map process for including a map that would identify traffic hot spots in town, where every project would be required to do a traffic analysis and impacts would have to be scrutinized more carefully.

Renuka Soll: Yes. There is congestion on major arterial roads throughout town during certain times of the day and many intersections have received a Level of Service rating of D or below. I avoid certain roads in the early morning, evenings, and when school lets out because I could get stuck in traffic for a long time. To avoid making the problem worse, traffic mitigation should occur simultaneously with new development that adds cars to our roads.

Is the town doing enough to address bike and pedestrian safety and connectivity?

Jessica Anderson: We’ve made progress but have more to do. In terms of connectivity, we’ve begun implementing a town-wide mobility and connectivity plan that includes safer options for non-motorized travel on existing town streets and greenways. In terms of safety, we’ve recently restricted right turns on red at 16 intersections (primarily downtown), have been working to make crosswalks more visible, and will be expanding our use of data to identify and improve trouble spots before accidents happen.

Sue Hunter: No, we are not doing enough and we must prioritize safe multi-modal infrastructure. Town funds for infrastructure improvements are limited, so we must use them strategically, while also advocating for restriping of roads to add bike lanes when the NCDOT repaves. We must also advocate for the NCDOT to follow their new complete streets policy, adding in multimodal infrastructure at their own expense when improving or expanding roads.

Tai Huynh: No, the current bike lanes are painted on the sides of heavily trafficked roads. This type of bike lane designation is not safe. On council, I will advocate for complete streets where streetside parking will act as a barrier between cars and bicyclists/pedestrians. Additionally, I will prioritize an internal network of bike lanes and greenways so that cyclists and pedestrians can get to where they want to go without having to get onto the main roads.

Nancy Oates: We need sidewalks along major corridors. We wait for redevelopment so the developer will pay for them, but then we’re left with stretches of no sidewalks for years. One parcel without sidewalks renders the entire length of that street inaccessible to foot traffic, especially those with mobility issues or strollers.

Michael Parker: We are doing a lot, but not enough. We need to accelerate our efforts to build protected bike lanes and greenways. Our decision to eliminate right turns on red from selected intersections is a good first step. Overall, however, we need to commit fully to Vision Zero (a strategy for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries).

Amy Ryan: No — we do a lot, but we can do more. My goal is to eventually have a connected greenway/open space system throughout town (think Fort Collins, Colorado). This will provide an alternate, and safer, transportation route for bikers and pedestrians traveling in Chapel Hill, while it brings important additional benefits — like providing the connected natural areas that foster biodiversity and creating green spaces that offer environmental services like carbon sequestration.

Renuka Soll: The town is making progress, but can do more to address this issue. Chapel Hill conducted a mobility and connectivity study which recommended various improvements. We now need to prioritize funding these projects to complete them as soon as possible. This will give people more options for getting around without having to take their cars everywhere. It will also help to ease traffic congestion.

Government

Should advisory board recommendations play a bigger role in the town’s decisions?

Jessica Anderson: Overall, I like the role of our advisory boards. However, I’ve been working on changes to ensure their analyses and recommendations are more effectively integrated into our decision-making processes. I’m also interested in making sure our boards are inclusive of all viewpoints. This led me to successfully champion the addition of allowances for childcare and transportation to our budget, reducing barriers for people who want to serve.

Sue Hunter: The advisory boards provide an opportunity for our community members to add their input and expertise. I do not believe their recommendations should play a bigger role in the town’s decisions. Advisory board members are not elected and are not representative of the community in terms of diversity. I would like to see Chapel Hill explore other options to increase civic engagement, including participatory budgeting, which has been used in Durham and Greensboro.

Tai Huynh: Yes. As vice chair of the Housing Advisory Board, I believe our advisory boards make the decision-making process accessible to residents. Our advisory boards should incorporate more students/young people, people of color, people from low-income neighborhoods, and residents who are directly impacted by our town’s affordable housing crisis. Our advisory boards should have strategic vision for the town so that they can make specific recommendations that align with our holistic vision for Chapel Hill.

Nancy Oates: It depends on who’s on the boards. If the boards comprise a broad spectrum of town residents who offer a wide range of viewpoints and some creative thinkers, we may get some creative solutions, and I would hope Town Council would listen. If the boards are overloaded with political appointees and guardians of “we’ve always done it this way,” then there’s no need for them to play a bigger role.

Michael Parker: I believe that our advisory board recommendations actually do play a large role in council decisions, although we don’t always do a good job of making it clear in what way. This should be addressed. And a number of our boards — the CDC, Planning Commission, and Historic District Commission, for example — have true decision-making roles.

Amy Ryan: Yes. Our advisory board members do an amazing job of applying their skills and expertise to our town’s deliberations, and I’d like to see their voices brought more explicitly into council discussions. The Planning Commission has “champions” who act as liaisons to each of the four other development review boards and give the commission a more robust report-out of their opinions than we get in the summary memos in our packet. I’d like to have the Town Council board liaisons give that same kind of reporting during council deliberations.

Renuka Soll: Yes. The advisory boards include residents who are experts in various aspects of town governance. These are residents who take their role seriously. Sometimes, the council receives the recommendation without seeing all the thought and work that went into them or perhaps missing the thoughtful recommendations altogether. Providing background information as well as the recommendations will give selected officials and staff a better understanding on the reasons behind the recommendations.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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