Name as it appears on the ballot: Aja Kelleher
Party affiliation: Independent
Campaign website: http://ajafortowncouncilcarrboro.us
Occupation & employer: Sr. Principal Engineer, Fidelity Investments
Years lived in Carrboro: 11
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?
I am running not as a politician but as a principled problem solver who gets results. I am a woman of color who has lived through and pushed past racial barriers. Our priorities are straight, but Carrboro can be even better. Every day I see real world issues that need more effective, timely solutions and plans that never make it to reality. I am running because I want to see strong alignment between what we say, the money we spend, and the results we get.
Carrboro is at a crucial turning point. We must continue to help our businesses recover from the pandemic and commit to a vibrant downtown. We need responsible growth that doesn’t say yes to every developer. Too many people who work and want to live in Carrboro can’t afford housing here, get around easily on public transit, or aren’t within walking distance of a park. We need to track progress on our priorities using dashboards so everyone can see just how well we are doing.
We are in a climate emergency right now. We must respond with urgency and make smart decisions to lower greenhouse gas emissions, increase the use of solar energy, and manage flooding at the level of Town policies and programs.
We need to upgrade our Town’s infrastructure so people can get basic Town info more easily, find more electric vehicle charging stations and board electric buses, ride their bikes and cross streets more safely.
I believe in community-first planning and participatory budget processes that value diverse community voices. We need engage more citizens in decision making to make sure these much-needed changes happen.
So we can coast on the status quo or change for a better future. As a Town Council member, I will be a leader who sees plans into reality.
2. Given the direction of Carrboro’s government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
In many ways, Carrboro is headed in the right direction by working on a new Comprehensive Plan with input from the community, its leaders and business owners. It takes a lot of political savvy, diplomacy and prudence to gather diverse, sometimes opposing community interests around a shared vision. But previous to Carrboro Connects there was the Carrboro 2020 Vision plan. How did Carrboro measure up to it? How did the Town measure progress, success or failure? What did we learn from the past that is informing this Comprehensive Plan? Too often Carrboro heavily front-loads on planning, while skimping on implementation and ignoring the critical backend of accountability for results. We need to develop priority dashboards that regularly indicate progress and outcomes. If something isn’t done or done on time, we need to find out why and make changes. I will advocate for thorough Implementation milestones, metrics and budget requirements to be added and aligned before the Comprehensive Plan is approved. We need clear accountability and a way to measure the results if the vision is to be more than a progressive dream.
3) Please identify the three of the most pressing issues Carrboro currently faces and how you believe the town should address them.
The three most pressing issues Carrboro currently faces are accountability for results, pandemic recovery and affordable housing.
For better accountability, the Town needs to provide information that is current, clear, and easy to access across all of its priority areas. We need to track progress towards goals using scorecards and transparent reporting. That will allow us to monitor results and improve on any implementation issues or failures.
The pandemic continues to bludgeon our community’s physical and economic health. Carrboro must continue to support local businesses and residents that are affected by the pandemic through the funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Town must prioritize the creation of more affordable housing by strategically utilizing any Town-owned land and working with nonprofit builders. Carrboro can continue to find ways to help identify and/or fund rental or home ownership subsidies for the 30 – 80 AMI (area median income) range through local nonprofits. Zoning decisions and updating the Land Use Ordinance are the biggest levers the Town can use responsible development and sufficient affordable housing.
4) What’s the best or most important thing the town council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the town should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
The most important thing the Town Council has done in the past year is working on the new Comprehensive Plan for the next 20 years. This is the first long-term “big picture” for our entire community. The plan is being built through input from our residents, business owners, partner organizations and the Town Council. The Plan’s foundations in Climate Action and Race & Equity have the capacity to address and redress serious problems that require serious attention.
I believe approving Lloyd Farm development’s (special use permit) that will soon begin construction on the last large tract of land available in Carrboro was a poor decision. The Town Council (all but members Damon Seils and Sammy Slade) approved the up-zoning for this development after five years of contention about how it did not fit with Carrboro’s 20/20 vision. The development plan calls for 220 rental units for ages 55 and over in the $2,000 – $3,000 per month range. The anchor tenant for retail space is a Harris Teeter, a second one for our small town – that will be within sight of a Food Lion in a strip mall right across the street. This location would have been better zoned for middle housing with some commercial spaces. It is creating suburban sprawl and housing for only those that can afford the high rent. It draws more people away from downtown local businesses and pushes more retail to the edge of town. This development is a missed opportunity that could have been a model of how to create housing for essential workers, teachers, and others who work in Carrboro but cannot currently afford to live here. Mixed income middle housing makes for a truly diverse, stronger community.
5) What prior experience makes you qualified for and passionate about the town council and its duties? What made you seek this position?
I am not a politician nor have I ever run for public office. I first started getting involved in local Town matters first as a small business owner years ago in Carr Mill Mall. One of my first meetings I attended was about parking spaces for downtown businesses. It was then I learned about how and why we had parking issues in downtown Carrboro. As a homeowner in Carrboro I became further involved in neighborhood advocacy when the Lloyd Farm development was first proposed. I joined other residents who were concerned about the traffic, noise, lights, trees, affordable housing, stormwater and other planning issues that would impact our neighborhood. Unlike other subdivisions, my neighborhood is an older one built over 50 years ago that acts as a passthrough neighborhood to the Post Office, Carrboro Plaza, and Main Street. Over the past nine years I have lived amidst unmanaged stormwater issues because Toms Creek regularly floods our neighborhood properties and homes.
I have a passion and persistence to drive issues that are important to all Carrboro neighborhoods. I want to affect change by running for Town Council. At first my main reason was because I felt many of us residents were largely ignored by the Town Council and staff. I want to be a Council member who does more than just talk and tell us what we want to hear, with little follow up or results. It’s been over 9 years since we moved into our neighborhood and to date, nothing has been done about the stormwater issues that have plagued our neighborhood for years. As a neighborhood we have spent countless hours attending meetings and talking to Town Council and staff to no avail. As I continue to talk to citizens across Carrboro, I have learned that this experience of frustration and lack of responsiveness is all too common. I felt it was time to get involved and make change happen any way I can.
6) As with most places in the Triangle, Carrboro is grappling with issues related to affordable housing. 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?
I think the Town needs to change its approach by promoting density housing, supporting Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) and an overhaul of the outdated Land Use Ordinance. That does not mean I want the Town to encourage expensive high rise rentals. The property tax increase that feeds the Affordable Housing Special Revenue Fund should be a sustained allocation. We need home ownership and affordable housing for those in the 30 -80 AMI range. Creating more of it in existing buildings or properties in areas like downtown would be ideal. The Town of Carrboro and Pee Wee Homes project is a good example. I think we need careful and thoughtful Town planning about questions such as how much, where, and what funding is needed will be critical to meeting the need. We have to get away from the cookie cutter solutions that many developers propose that do nothing more than create more suburban sprawl and add to the cost of infrastructure maintenance for the long run.
7) For those who rent or own homes in Carrboro already, how should the town and county address tax revaluations that increase property taxes and rising rents, particularly for residents in public housing and those low-income residents who face displacement?
The impacts of the tax revaluation process that we saw occur in neighborhoods such as Northside this year were an affront to the concept of equity that Carrboro is embracing. I believe that the Orange County revaluation process needs to be scrutinized and revised with an equity lens. I support a property tax relief fund and trained community resources to help people challenge property tax revaluations. I think the Town and County needs to continue to provide some relief to seniors, low income and residents in public housing with subsidies or reduced property taxes.
8) In what ways should Carrboro work on growing its tax base?
The Town needs to work with the Carrboro Business Alliance, residents and leaders to attract more businesses to the downtown area by providing incentives and improving the infrastructure. You have to have more commercial tax revenue and not just rely heavily on residential property taxes.
9) What do you think is the best course of action for the town’s parking issues?
I think the Town needs to work with the local business leaders and the Carrboro Alliance to develop and commit to a comprehensive parking plan. The 2017 Downtown Parking Plan has not effectively addressed these issues, just analyzed them without substantive results. It called for starting with development of a couple of case study examples of parking challenges faced by local business owners. Five years later not a single case study example has been completed. The New Carrboro Connects Comprehensive Plan devotes only one of its 196 pages to parking. There are a number of things the Town could do: lease more parking spaces from local businesses. I’m told the town is looking into this but could not find any current information on their leased parking plans.
I believe the Town should collect revenue for parking just like Chapel Hill. If you are going to try to remove the parking requirements for new development you have to have enough public parking to handle the demands.
They could extend the use of the parking app that is used in Chapel Hill and put meters in Carrboro’s public places. The Town could work with other land owners to develop parking solutions where available, preferably at the edge of town to reduce emissions and the amount of traffic generated by people driving around looking for a place to park. The key is they have to be willing to work out a solution and not continue the stalemate over parking. The town loses and local businesses are hurt financially by the loss. Visitors will go elsewhere and the businesses will continue to fail at an alarming rate. Whenever residents talk about parking publicly some folks talk about bikes and walking to town. That works great for anyone who lives within 30-45 minutes in town but is not feasible for many who must rely on cars. There are concerns about handicap accessible and weather conditions to consider. We have to be realistic on how to come up with solutions that work or we won’t see much improvement in the coming decades.
10) 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 will strongly advocate for an increased transportation budget for Carrboro’s partnership with Chapel Hill Transit. Carrboro’s stated priorities are to improve the levels and quality of transportation service available and extend beyond fixed route service. But the current Town Council approved only a 1.3% increase in its bus transportation budget over the previous year, basically maintaining the insufficient levels of current service, which has recently been imperiled by reduction of bus service due to operator shortages.
Significantly increased funding could provide for expanded Carrboro bus routes in terms of routes and frequency, accelerate conversion to more hybrid and/or electric buses to the fleet, which would decrease dependency on cars and reduce emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. It’s all connected!
The coming NS BRT in Chapel Hill is a model of what forward-thinking transportation planning can be. Through upgrading the current public transit infrastructure, it recognizes the interrelatedness of better serving those with affordable housing, reducing the carbon footprint by using electric buses, and encouraging ridership through its digital interface and multi-use paths. As a member of the Carrboro Town Council I would have the opportunity to serve on the Orange County Transit Partners that will influence decision making, funding streams, and accountability for completion of the NS BRT. My goal would be to identify how to optimize existing Carrboro-based routes to serve as express connectors to some NS BRT stops and look for ways to introduce some of the features of NS BRT to other Carrboro service routes.
Recruiting more bus drivers will likely require signing and longevity bonuses, better benefits and work conditions must be addressed if we are to effectively expand public transit.
We need more protected bike lanes, including some off-street lanes, better connectivity between existing ones, and a public safety awareness campaign for both drivers and cyclists.
11) Carrboro has traditionally struggled to attract businesses run by people of color. Why do you believe that is? How can the town work to attract minority-owned businesses?
There are several factors that have contributed to this struggle. Many people of color have difficulty getting access to grants or loans to start a business. Some rents are too high here to make it a viable opportunity. Many do not feel valued or invited into the business community. The Town can provide incentives to minority-owned businesses by providing start-up spaces, subsidies, grants or other incentives.
Transitioning to a participatory budgeting process is another way that people of color in Carrboro can directly impact and feel a sense of ownership over a portion of the Town’s capital budgeting process. It could also bring more BIPOC individuals to the table for sharing ideas, developing proposals, and voting on community projects.
12) The Town of Carrboro currently contributes around $340,000 to affordable housing projects each year. Could or should the town contribute more?
The town’s affordable housing funds come from property taxes and monies from developers. I think the town should continue to contribute to affordable housing to help keep it a viable and vibrant place to live. We will always have people with high, middle and low incomes in our community and we need to help make our town a viable place to live for everyone. I’m advocating that we build modest, yet quality housing that caters to low-to-middle income people, rather than just high-end condos and large, single-family homes.
13) What role does Carrboro have in developing the Greene Tract in partnership with Chapel Hill and Orange County? How do you think that land should be developed? What are your priorities for the property?
Carrboro is one of three governmental bodies that owns the Greene Tract and would be partly responsible for approving any plans. Chapel Hill would be in charge of the zoning. While it is a challenge to get all three governing bodies to agree on how the land should be developed, it is critical to consider the community impact, especially for those most impacted by the plans, the Rogers Road community. I think the priority should be for affordable housing, mixed use with an emphasis on minority businesses as well as the land that will be set aside for preservation.
15) How successfully do you feel the police department is building trust with the community? What, if anything, should the town be doing differently in regards to policing?
I think the police department has a tough job coming out of the pandemic. They are short staffed as it is and it’s been hard to recruit given some of the labor shortages. It does not help that the town is less competitive with wages compared to other towns and cities. From what I understand the Town Council has created policies for the Carrboro Police to work on building more trust with the community. I have read the reports that the Carrboro Police provide to the Town Council. They indicate that the Police department is making progress on implementing these directives. Many of our police officers have taken Community Intervention Training, which was developed with input from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I would like to see more community social services that are better trained to handle social service issues like mental health and substance abuse rather than over relying on the police to manage them.
16) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
In closing, as a resident I would like to see the town do a better job of being transparent and inclusive of all its residents. We need better accountability and transparency. The town council needs to do better than just pass “pet projects” that are advocated by special interest groups. We need more than just bicycle friendly streets, sidewalks and festivals. There are many things to love about Carrboro – connected sidewalks, small town feel, unique local businesses, quality schools, good housing, low unemployment and being close to UNC, Duke and RTP. I believe that most folks are not aware of any issues in town unless something impacts them directly like a new development, flooding, or crime. We also have a very low voter turnout in Carrboro, which means what happens in town is decided by a very small minority of residents. We need to encourage more community awareness and engagement so that our citizens play a much bigger role in what happens to our town. If we don’t have smart spending what do you think downtown Carrboro will be like in 10 years? As a former merchant I can tell you that a small business will barely be profitable if it depends on just Carrboro residents that can afford to patronize them. Our biggest draw to Carrboro is UNC and that patronage is seasonal just like a coastal town. As a local government it is not supposed to be run like a business but it should encourage economic growth not just value.
I judge a town by how it handles problems large and small with its residents. Overall, how is the town handling communication, transparency, and accountability for its policing, traffic, commercial/residential development, parks, stormwater, public works, permits, finances, development, growth, recreation? I think you can measure how good a town is by the problems they solve and how they approach issues. It’s like having an insurance policy: you don’t know how good it is until you make a claim. If you don’t have an issue with anything in your neighborhood, the town seems to be doing a great job right? I thought the same thing until I got involved in neighborhood problems that have been largely ignored for years on end. In my experience with the town on stormwater alone, I have heard a lot of empathy from the Council members , a lot of talk and promises and was told things like “some of the houses were built on a floodplain, what did you expect?”, or“we don’t have the funding to do a storm water study or to make improvements to town culverts because it would be too costly”. One of our neighbors died last year in June after enduring years of home flooding. Yet to date the Town’s FEMA grant assistance has yielded nothing for his family.
In February 2022, an announcement was made on a local news site that the Town had approved a process to consider affordable housing on two parcels of land that was dedicated to the Town of Carrboro in 1985 by the developer of the Fairoaks subdivision. These parcels on the 1800 block of Pathway Drive has been greenspace for over 37 years and is in the middle of at least 3 subdivisions : Fairoaks, Spring Valley, and Waverly Forest. It caught a lot of people off guard because there had been no communication about the process with the residents who would be impacted. Many residents gathered to talk about this proposal, asked to talk to the town staff and subsequently met with the Mayor and other Council members. Others showed up to Town meetings as well to speak to their concerns about this development. To date we have been told there are no plans to share with anyone and that this proposal is at stage zero. In this situation the town is making decisions with few details to share and poor community engagement. Is this land, with an 18 degree slope that flows down to a drainage pond below and houses at the bottom of its ravine, even appropriate for development? The town has a terrible track record for stormwater management so that is a big concern for the neighbors and the environment. There are neighbors and residents at odds over these parcels and have created some hostilities – neighbors being labeled as “NIMBYs” and others shaming people on not wanting to create a dense housing complex as being “anti-affordable housing”. This may be normal local politics to some but I think it shows the town leadership and staff need a lot of improvement in their communications, transparency and decision making processes.
I think the town needs to make a major change in the way it is managing stormwater. We know the town has hired and staffed 3 positions for stormwater management with a Stormwater Utility tax and that alone is not enough. The town needs a hydrologic engineer on staff. The new strategy of contacting HOAs to tell them they need to be compliant with stormwater control measures (SCMs) is coming as a big surprise to many homeowners. If our high property taxes are not enough to help pay for stormwater issues that the Town should be responsible for — then we need to work on improving our policies and figure out how to collect and manage taxes to help fund them. Residential assistance should include more than just consultation; it should contribute towards homeowner expenses for green infrastructure measures such as rain ponds and bioswales. I follow storm water issues very closely and the criteria for stormwater funds for residential areas seem to be a closely guarded secret. I learned that some of the storm water funds maybe used for the new 203 project. There is no wording in the stormwater documentation that states the storm water funds should be used for new construction. After 9 years of asking for storm water assistance for town culverts and Tom’s Creek flooding issues, we learned a neighborhood downtown will be getting funds from the town after only 3 years of requesting assistance. Another example of the lack of transparency to the public on what the criteria was for this project. We need a better policy on storm water and a town that takes responsibility for it’s stormwater issues that cause flooding in our neighborhoods. Ignoring your responsibilities and trying to offload the costs to the HOAs and residents or just ignoring it won’t make the issue go away.