Name as it appears on the ballot: Adam Searing
Party affiliation: Democrat
Occupation & employer: Attorney/Professor, Georgetown University Center for Children and Families
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 54
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the town council do differently or better over the course of your term?
As an award-winning nonprofit attorney, I have spent over 25 years advocating for all Americans to get quality, affordable health coverage. I’ve made a difference for millions of people through helping pass programs like the Affordable Care Act, expanding Medicaid, and protections for patients in managed care. But health care isn’t just seeing the doctor – it’s about our parks, trees, trails and conservation too. We all need exercise, trees, parks, and open space to stay mentally and physically fit, especially after this awful pandemic. That’s why I’m running! We should be saving—not selling—our parks, public lands and open spaces. My priorities:
1. Save our public parks and wild spaces like Greene Forest, Legion Park, and our creeks and trails from sale to private developers and destruction to support more building. In Chapel Hill our most protected forests and parks are largely surrounded by our highest income neighborhoods – that needs to change too. Everyone, regardless of income, deserves the solace of a simple walk in our forests and by our creeks. Once our public lands are gone, we will never get them back.
2. Support affordable housing. If we stop delaying and start building on projects we are already considering in town, we can quickly create 210 units of affordable housing. Innovation with partners like UNC – our town’s largest employer — can create even more. We also must change zoning rules that allow huge apartment projects in the fastest-growing area of town exemption from requirements that require a minimum amount of affordable housing.
3. I’ve traveled America and seen how many towns Chapel Hill’s size are creating amazing low-cost, low-impact mountain bike and walking trail systems in their public parks and forests to attract visitors and investment. We can do the same here.
2) Given the direction of Chapel Hill government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I believe our local government is on the wrong course. In Chapel Hill, our long-term debate pitting the need for affordable housing against preservation of our public forests, lands and parks is mired in how the world existed two years ago – not in the reality of today. What’s happened?
I’ve been in the outdoors all my life as a hiker, mountain biker, dog walker and trail builder. I have never seen as many people in our public forests and parks as I have in the past two years. So many people have told me how important the woods and open spaces were to them as a place of escape and solace in a horrifying global pandemic. We all felt so lucky to live in Chapel Hill where these resources are a part of our landscape. In addition, climate change has meant longer and hotter summers the last two years and more intense rainstorms and flooding. Our outdated notion we can just build on every square inch of town and not affect water runoff is in serious question. And we know communities that are near forests and protected spaces are cooler and more appealing as our world warms.
These enormous changes mean we have to start prioritizing our natural environment in a way we haven’t before. We must put a new emphasis on preserving our public forests, public parks and public open spaces. Not only are these resources one of the main reasons people want to live here but they are critical to our health and well-being. A recent review of years of research by the American Academy of Pediatrics found huge positive outcomes for kids of access to our woods, forests and streams, including increased physical activity, reduced obesity, and decreased stress and better mental health. Critically, these benefits need to be equitably distributed among children – kids from our lower income communities need the same access to nature available to kids from higher income families. And that same principle should apply to everyone.
We need to move beyond the debates of the past and begin to address the future in the following specific ways:
1. Put the sale and development of our public lands, public forests and open spaces on pause and convene a public review and commission. This group should investigate the huge increase in use of public forests and lands, especially during the pandemic. Teams of informal, unofficial volunteers all over town have built and maintain tens of miles of walking, hiking, and mountain biking trails in these areas. And thousands of residents like the middle school mountain bike team I coached and many other walkers, runners and nature lovers are using these resources on a regular basis – we need to hear how residents’ recreation needs are changing. In many areas, residents have effectively created unacknowledged de facto parks out of spaces currently seen as “land banks” or “slash pine” by local government leaders. We also need to hear from businesses affected by recreation use changes (for example, all our bike shops have been sold out of bikes for months), groups like the formal mountain bike service group, the organized running groups, and the many other community groups that are increasingly using our public lands in a way not anticipated by the town. This commission also needs to investigate the distribution of protected forests and parks in our town and how we can make sure all neighborhoods, regardless of income, have access to our best public natural spaces – there is a significant environmental justice component here. As our world warms and our climate changes these forests and streams and trees have taken on a new significance in our community. We cannot continue on our present course and we need to identify and quantify the importance of our public lands.
2. We must change the special zoning district near where I grew up on Ephesus Road. Current zoning allows developers to build large, luxury apartment buildings with no affordable housing requirements – as are required in other town projects – and to avoid Council review. This failed policy has resulted in what a planner hired by the town recently called “Disney cruise ship” size buildings anchored without regard to walkability, livability or character. And these buildings are replacing what were older, very affordable apartments! Now the town is coming for the Legion Park in the area to sell public land off for more commercial development and try and build affordable housing on public land the town didn’t require in the new private developments – but this time on public forest and public open space. This is a complete failure of planning, policy and vision. We must change course immediately on this and require more from all private developers – it is very attractive to build in Chapel Hill and we have leverage to require more affordable housing as part of these developments. Finally, we must immediately designate all of Legion Park – which residents maintain themselves and have been using as a park for years – as a park just like other areas of town enjoy as this part of town explodes with growth.
3. We need to stop arguing about selling more of our most beautiful public land for affordable housing and focus on finally starting affordable housing projects where the town has been dragging its feet. For years, Trinity Park, a housing development for our lowest income residents that is right next to downtown and a beautiful park, has sat empty. This is unbelievable, especially as we quickly moved on a giant office complex redevelopment in downtown. In addition, our project on town land on Homestead Road to build more affordable homes has been plagued by delays. We also have an opportunity to move on closer-in affordable development on town land by Jay Street near downtown. Let’s complete what we already know we want to do. I would also like to explore a new housing development with UNC (our largest town employer) aimed at UNC employees, starting with UNC’s housekeeping, food service staff, and administrative support staff and also aimed at UNC’s newest faculty members and their families. An attractive complex near town with sliding scale rent and great family amenities could really help our housing crunch and be very attractive to many.
4. We need to use more park funding in our budget (and from federal COVID relief funding) to think differently about recreational uses of our public forests, public open spaces, streams and trails. This summer I got a chance to travel the United States for over a month with my 14-year-old son, riding bikes, hiking and camping in towns and smaller cities like Bentonville, Arkansas, Oakridge, Oregon, Driggs and Boise, Idaho, and well beyond. These areas are taking public green spaces and creating low-cost, low-impact trail systems that attract recreational visitors from mountain bikers to hikers, walkers and just folks who enjoy nature. In NC, towns like Belmont and Mayodan are doing this as well. We can do the same here with our extensive green spaces held not just by our towns but by entities from the federal government to Duke and UNC. Already informal forest trails connect Chapel Hill to Durham’s popular Tobacco Trail and volunteers build and maintain around 100 miles of formal and informal biking and hiking trails in our area. Let’s think big and enhance our paved greenway plans with miles of exciting, low-impact and affordable trail systems to benefit everyone. New funding available under federal COVID relief could provide a starting point to create new infrastructure and jumpstart this project.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
I think I have covered this in my answer to question #2. My top three issues are rethinking the development of our public lands, resetting our affordable housing efforts on existing projects and new collaborations, and adjusting our recreation needs and expectations to the growing need for active outdoor recreation.
4) What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
I’ve spent my professional career as a public interest lawyer working on some of the toughest political issues in our state and country. I know what it is like to bring together people who disagree and work out solutions that can benefit everyone.
In addition, I have worked to help all Americans – regardless of income – for years. I’ve helped families about to lose their houses because of unpaid hospital bills that have resulted in liens on their very modest homes. I’ve helped families who couldn’t get health coverage for their kids finally be able to take their sick children to the doctor. I know we need to provide opportunity for all in our community. We can help provide housing and support our amazing service efforts like our pandemic effort to provide meals to families, our free bus system, our commitment to our library as a place for information and respite for all and more. But I also know the limitations of what Chapel Hill can do to tackle income disparities in our community with a state government that refuses to expand health care, eliminates a state earned income tax credit, and refuses to raise the minimum wage. Our community should do all we can to provide opportunity to all while building a town we can all be proud of – and use our example to encourage other levels of government to do their part as well.
Finally, growing up here in Chapel Hill and loving bicycles, hiking and the outdoors as much as I do, I have ridden, hiked, waded and walked in almost every area of our community. There is no one in town who knows our woods, streams, trails and trees like I do and I believe that is a perspective we need on our Council – especially now. I have also commuted by bicycle in our community off and on for decades, starting in the early 1980s when I was the only student arriving by bicycle at Chapel Hill High School. At that same time, I also used to ride early routes through the then-countryside to Cary and Raleigh. I have a unique perspective on our alternative transport infrastructure and what we can do to improve our system and make the connections we need.
Endorsements so far: CHALT, Sierra Club NC Chapter
5) Last year, town voters approved a $10 million affordable housing bond, and so far $5.2 million has created nearly 300 affordable units. But affordable housing remains a concern. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? Should it promote apartment living, duplexes, and/or triplexes? Encourage density in single family housing? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
Our $10 million bond was actually approved in 2018. I have covered some of the actions I think we need to take on affordable housing above. In addition to what I have already laid out I believe we need to focus in proposed new developments on “the missing middle” of housing in our town – more affordable duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and similar construction where people can buy and own their own homes at a more affordable price. We can build denser development that brings down prices as compared to single family homes without building large apartment buildings that are directed primarily at renters. We also want to try and encourage more owner-occupied units. The pandemic and climate change are combining to make Chapel Hill an extraordinarily attractive place to live – in recent months we’ve seen almost one new major development proposal a week announced. This gives us more leverage to require more from these developments.
One of the things we are doing right in our affordable housing efforts is our work with our partner, UNC, to help maintain our Northside neighborhood for families, not students, and begin to build new affordable homes on Homestead Road. I believe we should significantly expand this partnership. UNC is our town’s largest employer, providing over 40% of workers in town with jobs. UNC also employs a wide range of people with a huge variety of incomes. As I outlined above, I’d like to explore working with UNC to create a new housing complex that is within easy bus service of downtown, extremely desirable and well-built, and can be structured to appeal to many different UNC employees who don’t have the ability to purchase a home in the current environment but need a beautiful place to live for themselves and their families. Depending on size, this could take significant pressure off our other affordable housing efforts for non-UNC affiliated residents and provide an attractive new benefit to UNC employment as well.
6) How should the town and county address tax revaluations that increase property taxes, especially in neighborhoods such as Northside? How should local governments address rising rents, particularly for residents of public housing? What role does the town have in ensuring its residents who live in mobile home parks remain housed in light of development pressures? Homelessness has increased by 40 percent in Orange County in 2021. How should the town and county address this issue?
I am not an expert on property tax reform, but I am aware that increasing gentrification, rising property values, and more home sales can lead to longtime lower income residents of historic neighborhoods to be hit with unaffordable property taxes. This can result in residents no longer being able to afford to live in the neighborhood and have adverse effects not just on individual residents but on the community as a whole. Our town cannot become simply a forest of investor-owned condos and student apartments. I would generally support efforts to preserve our historic neighborhoods like Northside and keep residents in their homes.
Likewise, the problem of development pressures causing mobile home park owners – who generally own the land – to decide to sell their parks to developers regardless of the wishes of the residents who own the mobile homes sitting on the land is an increasing problem. We already are dealing with this issue both along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in town and outside of town as well just like surrounding communities. I believe there is legislation in Congress that I would support to create funds and incentives for park owners to sell to residents rather than developers and to help residents move their mobile homes – if possible – to new sites. I am not sure what other measures we can take at the town level but I am willing to try hard to come up with solutions for residents about to lose their homes.
I have outlined some of the steps our town can take to increase our stock of affordable housing and address the increasing numbers of people homeless in our town. I believe we can do more through projects like the tiny home development created by The Advocate church on Homestead Road and similar efforts. We will also need a coordinated effort from both the state and federal governments to help us address the multiple factors that can cause residents to become homeless. I am prepared to work with local groups like the IFC and OCAHC who have spent years addressing this issue.
7) The town recently approved the Aura and University Place projects and more large development projects will continue to come before the council. What do you want to see from large development projects such as these and should the town develop comprehensive long term goals for projects? What role do developers have to connect with the Chapel Hill community and surrounding environment? What, if any, concerns do you have about traffic, scale, preservation of green space, and potential effects on the environment?
We need to step back from the ongoing debates over individual development projects and come up with a more comprehensive plan to drive development in town. As part of this process, we need to immediately change the zoning in the Ephesus Fordham district to at least match requirements for council review and affordable housing percentages that apply in the rest of town. This will allow us to start with a level playing field in an environment where recently new large development projects were being proposed about once a week. Here are some of what our new comprehensive plan for town development should cover:
1. We need to ensure public forests, parks, town open space and green space is accessible to all – not just certain areas of town and by certain neighborhoods.
2. We need to develop housing in our “missing middle” – townhomes, duplexes, triplexes and similar developments that will be for purchase – so that people who can’t afford a single-family home but could afford something smaller also have choices to live in Chapel Hill.
3. We need to leverage the enormous interest developers currently have in building in Chapel Hill to demand new private developments build more real affordable housing as part of their projects.
4. With climate change, stormwater management is becoming an increasing problem. With increasing population there is an increasing impact on traffic despite our work on transit and alternative transportation options. We need to create a mechanism for more independent review of development project effects in these two areas so we can make better decisions.
5. We need to consider transit and trail connectivity as a primary part of the development process.
6. Development pressure is now so intense I believe it is overwhelming town staff and our part-time system of town government. We need to work out a process to enable full and complete review of the enormous number of development projects now before the town and coming in the next twelve months that balances our land use responsibilities with the desire of landowners, developers and out-of-state investors to quickly develop property.
8) The town recently partnered with UNC on Downtown Together, to revitalize downtown and create a hub of innovation. What would you like to see come out of that partnership and what specific changes would you like to see downtown?
Growing up in Chapel Hill in the 1970s and 1980s I remember a more vibrant downtown with a variety of stores from Foster’s Camera to the Intimate Bookshop. I realize we can’t recreate the economy and geographical situation that enabled such a downtown model, but I do share a desire to see more life and business variety on Franklin Street. I am not an expert on this particular partnership but I generally support collaborative efforts with UNC to increase office space and downtown workers.
9) The town recently adopted a resolution to follow recommendations from the Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force, with the mission of increasing public safety, eliminating inequalities, and enabling all in the community to thrive. In actionable terms, how do you see these recommendations being implemented to improve policing? How should the town address panhandling?
I think that report was generally a good start and I appreciate the community work that went into creating the document. The two recommendations I would start off with implementing are increasing our data collection and monitoring and a move to reduce police stops for minor non-moving violation infractions. First, I believe better data on how our public safety department is handling cases is critical to making changes that will have a positive impact on the community – if we don’t know what is going on we can’t fix it. Second, focusing our police work on more serious offences and away from minor infractions seems to be an idea that has broad support and also can have significant community effect.
10) How should the Greene Tract be developed? Does town government have a responsibility to protect public forests, parks, and other green spaces near low income communities as it currently protects public land near wealthy ones?
The Greene Tract, at 164 acres, is the largest public forest in Chapel Hill. The Greene Tract Forest is threatened with development that bears little resemblance to proposals from years of community planning. Our public property on Legion Road is in danger of being divided and part of it sold for commercial uses – instead of creating an amazing park as residents have asked for years. Miles of trails and acres of beautiful hardwood trees beside many creeks are now slated for removal for water retention projects to support even more building. (While we’ve “paused” the Booker Creek removals in this election year, removal of acres of trees at the headwaters of Booker and Bolin Creeks is still on the table and this issue has not gone away.) Our woods, trees and wild spaces help make Chapel Hill great and are an important reason so many of us love living here. Especially after this awful pandemic we need to put a much larger priority on our parks and green space than we have in the past – and this protection needs to extend to every community in town, not just our higher income areas.
To do this we need to halt plans to sell off our public land to private interests and focus on what our residents want. In Chapel Hill, our Town Council frequently sets up large community meetings, asking residents to spend hundreds of hours of time and input and then produces comprehensive, hundred-plus page reports on the results. However, if the community results don’t match what the current Council wants to do, those reports are often disregarded, frustrating residents.
In the case of the Greene Tract Forest, more than 20 years of public planning and community meetings have consistently produced multiple reports recommending that around 80% of the Forest be preserved around 20% be set aside for affordable housing and development in character with surrounding neighborhoods. At no point has anyone in these years of reports asked for the current plan – two large roads run through the forest and about 80 acres of the public’s forest largely sold off to private developers for market rate housing and market rate development. A “preserved area” is now just green space around the headwaters of Bolin and Booker Creeks that can also contain retention ponds, road development and utilities. This development on our public forest could be as big as five times the size of the town’s recently approved controversial Aura project on private property, would be by far the largest project built on town land in decades and the largest sale of public land in decades to private interests. This isn’t what has been asked for in the past. Is this really what we want now? And what political considerations are causing us to barrel forward with this sale of public land when we can’t even start or complete multiple affordable housing projects in town like Trinity Park or 2200 Homestead that are actually near town, transit, and don’t require building of extensive infrastructure?
We need to bring similar scrutiny to proposals to sell part of the public Legion Road Park property to commercial developers and to develop even more housing. Over 1000 apartments – including over 140 affordable units – have been built or are already proposed in the Legion Road area and the community there has consistently asked for a park on the entire property to serve surrounding communities, most recently after hundreds of hours of time helping the town produce a community report. Other, wealthier areas of Chapel Hill have much larger parks. But the report doesn’t match what the Council wants, so out it goes and the march is now on to sell off substantial parts of the Legion property for development.
Finally, both Legion Park and the Greene Forest exemplify a troubling aspect of where our most protected and preserved public forests, lands and parks are located in Chapel Hill. The largest protected public land and public forests in town – Cedar Falls Park, Pritchard Park, Southern Community Park, and Merritt’s Pasture/Morgan Creek Preserve – are all largely surrounded by our higher income neighborhoods. In fact, the Greene Forest and Legion Park are unique in that they are surrounded or close by very affordable homes on at least two sides. Yet it is in these two largest areas of public land and forest that the town is currently considering sale of public property for development – whether for commercial business, market rate housing, or affordable housing. And we don’t have to imagine the outcry if significant public forest was proposed for sale or development in other areas of town like Cedar Falls Park or Pritchard Park. Just last month, acres of town-owned hardwood forests, trails and streams along Booker Creek though some of our higher income neighborhoods were slated to be cut down and turned into stormwater retention projects to support more town development. Residents organized and fought back with clear and convincing arguments and stopped the deforestation plans for now. But in being so responsive, the Town showed the disparity in outcomes for which land we protect. People living in affordable homes in Greenfield place deserve an amazing Legion Park just as much as residents of Southern Village. And people living in our Phoenix Place neighborhood and Rogers Road have as much right to a beautiful public forest as folks in the homes surrounding the library and Pritchard Park. We can build more affordable housing and we can, if necessary, use some public land to help us reach our goals. But this shouldn’t be an excuse to sell off our most beautiful public forests and lands that should be available to all.
11) The town recently adopted a Climate Action Plan. Do you think the plan goes far enough in addressing issues related to climate change? What are some short and long term actionable items you see coming out of the plan?
Climate change response urgently requires systematic action on the state, federal, and international level but, as a town, Chapel Hill can do its part as well. And our Climate Action Plan, while a good start, needs to go farther. Here’s where we need to act:
1. Chapel Hill’s budget reflects its priorities, and with 23% of the budget devoted to public transit, our free bus and related transit system is the single largest line item we spend money on as a community. Continuing this investment to make sure our bus system is efficient, comfortable (including decent shelters) and highly used is critical to our climate efforts to reduce automobile use. In addition, moving along construction of our North/South corridor bus rapid transit route is critical during the next Council term to improve our system even more.
2. We also need to complete more of the planned greenways and other connectors in the town’s bicycle and mobility plan in order to provide multiple, safer ways for residents and families to use bicycles and other alternative forms of transportation to get to grocery stores, school and work. We have a long priority list of projects for connectivity in that plan and we should continue to implement these improvements as funding allows and as we begin work on priorities like the Estes side path.
3. Deforestation should be at the top of our list of concerns. As development pressures result in more and more building on privately-owned land in town, our town must better prioritize preservation of our forests and trees, with a special duty to property that the town owns already. With more and more research showing the beneficial effects of forests and tree cover for the mental and physical health of residents we should also strive so that all our residents, regardless of income, have access to our cooling forests and beautiful streams and trails. Especially after the pandemic, itself arguably another manifestation of climate failures, we need to better conserve the public natural resources we have left here in Chapel Hill.
4. Climate change impacts our lower income communities significantly in Chapel Hill. Our largest protected green spaces and protected forest land – which have significant cooling effects in a warming world — are mostly surrounded by Chapel Hill’s higher income communities. We need to develop and protect more parks and open spaces near our lowest income communities and development of a forest park in the public Greene Tract Forest and a full-size protected park at Legion Road can help. More frequent and heavier rainstorms as a result of climate change are also causing more flooding – and have a high impact on our lower income neighbors that live closest to our creeks in rental housing like Camelot Apartments. We need to protect our watersheds and prepare for much more stormwater by protecting our public forests and insisting on building that takes into account this new normal.
12) How do you feel Orange County, municipal, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board officials have handled the COVID-19 pandemic? If you don’t think the pandemic was handled well, what should have been done differently?
Our local government officials handled the enormous challenges of the pandemic well. In a challenging time, we managed to keep more of our residents safe, respond to the challenge of so many children out of school, and work with UNC to minimize pandemic effects. As a volunteer for months in UNC’s Friday Center vaccine clinic, I was able to see up close the cooperation and community spirit that made this possible.
13) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
I believe this is a goal we should continue to prioritize as we move into an era where huge decisions are being made that will change the look, character and structure of our town for many years in the future. Continuing to work with our many advocates for social justice in town can provide one avenue to convene meetings and reports where significant community participation from marginalized groups can happen. In addition, we should explore new ways to reach out whether through telephone surveys, directly contacting residents, or other methods to increase participation. Finally, we need to try and make sure that residents don’t feel their voices aren’t heard when they do participate. This is a problem for the town for all groups they ask to participate (as I’ve detailed above), but asking folks who are historically marginalized to devote time and energy to a town meeting or report is asking much more than we ask from people who may have higher incomes and more time to devote to town meetings and neighborhood advocacy.
14) In your view, how can the town improve public transit, especially in terms of serving lower-income residents? How can the town recruit and retain more bus drivers? How can bike lanes be made safer and more efficient?
I have covered some of this topic in my climate change discussion above. In addition to my suggestions to question #11, I think we need to exploring adding an “East/West” bus rapid transit route as well as a solution for our UNC employees who live outside of town. These changes can all make it easier for everyone, especially lower income residents, to access town quickly and safely.
Our transit budget will face challenges in the next year. I do not know what the changes will be from the pandemic, but I frequently pass the Eubanks Road commuter lot at the northern terminus of our main North/South bus line and there are far fewer cars daily there than there were two years ago. We are also going to lose federal assistance for transit provided during the pandemic. I think we need to sit down with our partners and address the driver, budget and transit issues in light of the changes we are experiencing.
I covered my thoughts about bicycle transport in question #11 as well. However, in response to the bike lanes question above, I would say that my priority is on creating – as much as we can – separate greenway and multi-use paths rather than simply adding unprotected bicycle lanes to busy streets.
15) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
If 5,700 words isn’t enough already, I don’t know if more will be helpful! Cheers!
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