Name as it appears on the ballot: Amy Ryan
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: AmyRyan.org
Occupation & employer: Book editor/self-employed
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 23
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’ve lived in Chapel Hill for 23 years and served on town boards for the last 17. I’m running for Council because after a long time in an advisory role, I’m ready to take the lead on how we grow, how we take better care of our environment, and on how we can create exciting places and opportunities while still nurturing the character and community we value.
In addition to my years in town government, I bring other relevant skills and experience to Council. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, so I’m comfortable with technical material and have strong analytical skills. I’ve spent my career as a book editor, so I know how important it is to get the details right. And I have a master’s degree in landscape architecture, so I understand ecology and land planning, and how good places can nurture a great community.
I’ve built a reputation as an effective, hardworking champion for growth that fits into the fabric of our town, for protecting our tree canopy and stream buffers, for promoting bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and for fostering a more affordable, more diverse community.
On Council, I’ll be a strong advocate for putting more “green” in our environmental policies—not just looking at density and transit solutions, but finding ways to protect our trees and natural spaces and knit our parks and greenways into a connected system. I’ll work on improving the Blue Hill form-based code to give us the human-scale live/work district we were promised. Finally, I’ll work to build a healthier balance in town, including a broader tax base and more diverse and affordable housing options.
I know Chapel Hill, I know the issues we face, and I’ll be ready to hit the ground running on my first day on Council.
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?
Yes, the town is on the right course. In the last several years, Chapel Hill has made great strides toward living the values we talk about and implementing effective policies to get real results. To mention just a few areas:
Promoting affordable housing. The town created a strategic plan, passed a $10 million bond, and developed a set of goals and accountability measures to make sure we’re making progress on this crucial issue.
Greening town operations. Chapel Hill has made significant progress in this area, beginning to electrify our town fleet, improving the operational efficiency of our buildings, and implementing strong recycling and composting programs.
Fostering entrepreneurship. Working in partnership with the university, local leaders, and commercial landlords, the town is finding ways to nurture young talent (like the Launch incubator), help new businesses grow (Carolina Coworking), and find places for successful companies that want to remain in town as they mature.
Improving governance. The town implemented a tracking system for public petitions, started videotaping and audio recording town meetings, began providing child care and transportation reimbursement for board members, and started providing real-time translators at selected public meetings.
One area where I would like to see improvement is putting more “green” in our town environmental policies. We’ve focused for a long time on density and transit solutions – I want to make sure that we balance that with preserving and protecting natural spaces. I’ll be working toward creating a connected green infrastructure in town, which will not only provide places for recreation and transportation, but will help keep our air and water healthy, offer homes for native plant and animal species, and sequester carbon.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
1. Affordability—In addition to maintaining the town’s robust commitment to investing in our current and new affordable units, I favor a broad, multi-pronged approach to the issue, including removing barriers to the construction of accessory dwellings on single-family lots, opening certain areas to denser infill housing, keeping property taxes in check, negotiating for affordable units in new development near transit, and maintaining a strong fare-free bus system.
2. The environment—Much of the recent discussion in Chapel Hill about environmental stewardship has centered on density and transit. I recognize and support their importance in climate-change mitigation, but at the same time I want to make sure that we don’t forget the “green” in our climate strategy. As we grow denser in some places, we need to intentionally preserve natural areas in others and plan for connecting them into a “green infrastructure” for the town. This not only will help with habitat and biodiversity preservation and carbon sequestration, but will provide important natural recreation spaces (especially for people living in apartments) and an alternative transportation network for bikers and pedestrians throughout town.
3. Planning for growth—With my background in landscape architecture, I’ve focused my town service on land planning issues. Chapel Hill will be updating our land use map and ordinances soon, and I want to be on Council to insure we plan strategically to grow in the right places and at the right size, balance new building with green space, and better address issues like traffic and stormwater. I also want to advocate for allowing new kinds of infill, like quad apartments, so we can allow greater density in neighborhoods along our transit corridors in a way that fits with the existing residences.
4) What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town government and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you considered significant.
I’ve served on Chapel Hill boards and commissions for 17 years, both as a member and in leadership positions, so I understand the issues our town faces and how our government works. In addition to memberships on many smaller work groups, I’ve served on these major town boards and committees:
Planning Commission (8 years, 2 as chair)
Community Design Commission (6 years)
Central-West Focus Area Steering Committee (1 year, co-chair)
Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force (1 year)
Morgan Creek Greenway Commission (1 year)
I have been endorsed in 2019 by the Sierra Club, CHALT, Equality NC, and the Triangle AFL-CIO.
5) What concerns do you have related to short-term rentals? What regulations do you believe the town should enact? What municipalities do you believe have put in place successful models?
I’ve used short-term rentals when I travel, and I’ve had great experiences with them. But as with any new use category, the town needs to figure out how to balance the benefits of short-term rentals with mitigating any issues they might cause. We’ve had short-term landlords testify to the Planning Commission about how the extra income from Airbnb has helped make their home more affordable for them. We’ve also heard concerns about health, safety, and welfare of guests and nuisances to next-door neighbors.
Chapel Hill is convening a task force to examine the issue more closely and recommend appropriate regulation. It seems sensible to me that we create a registration system, some kind of standards for safety inspections for non-hosted rentals, a process for quickly addressing neighbor complaints, and a mechanism for ensuring that the town collects the occupancy tax generated by the rentals.
One town with an ordinance along those lines is Breckinridge, CO. They have a complaint hotline; require each rental to appoint a local responsible agent to address problems as they arise; have rules about parking, trash, and noise; set minimum health and safety standards for units; mandate periodic inspections by the town; and require each unit to be licensed. The town is one of VRBO’s most popular ski destinations, an indicator that these kinds of reasonable standards can foster a healthy short-term rental market.
6) Last year, town voters approved a $10 million affordable housing bond, but affordable housing remains a concern. UNC students consume a large portion of rental units throughout Orange County, while zoning and historic preservation rules sometimes the supply of housing. What are the next steps you believe the town should take on the affordability front?
Housing is a perennial issue in Chapel Hill, and there are many faces to the affordability issue. Vox ran a good article on the national affordability crisis, describing it as a two-tier problem. Some people simply do not have enough money to afford housing of any kind, and they need subsidies in order to have a place to live. Others have solid incomes, but the supply of housing in their price range is limited; they need more housing options.
For the former population, Chapel Hill needs to continue its strong commitment to maintaining and reinvesting in our town-owned public housing and working with our housing partners to provide subsidized units. For the moderate-income families being hurt by lack of supply, we can do a couple of things. First, we can explore partnerships with our housing partners, developers, and other government entities to create more “missing middle” housing. Second, we can amend our land use ordinance to allow for neighborhood-appropriate infill—granny flats, duplexes, triplexes, quads, and small townhouse developments—to provide more and lower-cost housing options throughout town.
7) In what ways do you believe the town should seek to grow its tax base? What are the best methods to encourage business growth in Chapel Hill and attract start-ups to promote economic development?
I fully support the mayor and Council’s focus on growing our commercial tax base. Encouraging companies to locate and grow here will provide good jobs for our residents and take some of the burden of paying for town services off of our residential property owners.
With our world-class research university, Chapel Hill has an amazing amount of business potential, and we need to work hard to give it a good home. We have the talent—we just need to provide the infrastructure and environment these businesses need to thrive.
To achieve this, the town is partnering with the university to provide office space and support for young entrepreneurs, working with landlords to offer flexible lease terms, and granting strategic incentives to developers willing to build the kind of office space we need to capture and retain larger companies. We’ve also approved a new light industrial zone in the Millhouse Road area, with streamlined development review for companies wanting to locate there.
The town needs to think about ways to expand these efforts. Over the long term, I’d like to explore creating an office/commercial corridor along South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It’s got excellent transit service and would be a northern extension to downtown—two strengths that would help us attract and retain the businesses we want.
If we continue to prioritize growing our business sector, we’ll start a virtuous cycle—more people willing to build the office space we need, and more companies able to call Chapel Hill home.
8) On September 25, the town council unanimously sent to staff a Downtown Partnership petition seeking a traffic impact analysis for the restriping West Franklin Street that would add protected bike lanes and reduce pedestrian-crossing distances, and generally slow traffic. With the caveat that the analysis has yet to be conducted, how would you describe your vision for the future of West Franklin? What would you like to see happen to this part of Chapel Hill over the next decade?
The kind of “road diet” the Downtown Partnership is proposing is a tested strategy for making central business districts more walkable and more vibrant. The town of Greenville, SC, implemented similar improvements years ago, designing a space that gives priority to bikers and walkers. They also put bump-outs at crossings, to give pedestrians a shorter route to cross, and ensured that there are plenty of shade trees and benches to make the space comfortable for pedestrians. These changes have built a very welcoming, and very successful, downtown.
Change will inevitably come to the West End. Increasing density in appropriate ways here will be good for the vibrancy of the entire area. It will be the town’s job to manage this change strategically—as we provide new places, we also have to be sensitive to their relationship to existing neighborhoods, such as Northside and the Historic District. We need to manage change in a way that respects the integrity of these neighborhoods and enhances an important part of Chapel Hill’s downtown brand—the character, tree canopy, and varied retail and dining environment that are so important to the town’s success.
9) Relatedly, what changes, if any, would you like to see in the parking system downtown? Do you believe there is a more efficient way to create parking?
The ideal is to have people walking and riding the bus into and through downtown, but realistically, a large number of people who work, shop, and dine there get there by using their cars, so parking will be an issue we’ll be grappling with for some time.
I support the town’s plans to build a West End parking deck. It will provide hundreds of spaces of centralized parking for the West End that will be easy for people to find. Moving cars off surface lots means that they can be redeveloped into the kind of places that will bring more businesses, housing, jobs, and vitality into downtown.
I think a great recent improvement to parking downtown is the Park Mobile app, and I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who doesn’t like to fiddle with the payment kiosks!
10) The town has environmental awareness as one of its goals. Name three ways you believe Chapel Hill can work toward this goal.
I think the focus on environmental awareness has been supplanted in Chapel Hill, and many other places, with awareness of the need for environmental action. As a town, we can take action by:
1. Working to build a connected “green infrastructure” in town—I’d like to see us bring together our patchwork of parks, greenways, and open space and create a system for bike and pedestrian connectivity, recreation, biodiversity preservation, and carbon sequestration.
2. Using land planning for good environmental planning—As we embark on rewriting our land use map and ordinances, I want to make sure that we make the kind of choices that will help the entire town reduce its carbon footprint. This means allowing density near our transit corridors to give people alternatives to car travel, updating our building requirements with sustainability in mind, and planning for a comprehensive and connected bike and pedestrian transportation network.
3. Continuing to “green” town operations—We’re making good progress, improving building efficiency, moving to electric buses and fleet vehicles, and building robust recycling and composting efforts. Not only does this save money and reduce town government’s carbon footprint, it also sets a good example for residents who are looking to “green” their own lives.
11) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
The town needs to work hard to build inclusivity in two ways—in reaching out to all the different groups in town where they are, to provide information and services, and in bringing in these different groups inside, to add their voices and experience to government decisions.
In several town Planning Commission initiatives I’ve been part of, inclusivity has been one of the first issues we’ve addressed. We’ve brainstormed ways to improve participation and convened a committee to work on strategies to bring the Chapel Hill’s diverse voices into our decisions.
I’ve been encouraged to see that the town now has the capabilities for simultaneous translation into Spanish for people attending meetings and events, and I understand that we are working to expand our translations to other common languages in town, like Karen. Where possible, we should hire town staff who are fluent in the different languages our community members use so that government as a whole is more accessible to people with a first (or only) language other than English.
The town has had a great outreach success with the People’s Academy, a five-week program offered each year. Residents get to meet town leaders, learn how the town runs, find out about working in government, and gain community leadership skills. I attended one of their sessions last year and was struck by what a diverse group of people it was, many of whom who were engaging with their town government for the very first time. It’s outreach that really, really works.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
1. Land Planning. As someone with years of experience in land planning issues—a master’s in landscape architecture, advance graduate coursework in the history of the design of public spaces, and multiple terms of service on Chapel Hill’s Planning Commission and Community Design Commission—I approach many of the town’s issues through a land-planning lens.
Good land planning can help us achieve so much of what we are trying to accomplish in Chapel Hill. For example, we can change our rules so that right-sized multi-unit housing is allowed in our neighborhoods near transit and commercial areas. We can plan to add density in places that are walkable to transit, jobs, and daily retail needs. And we can work on connecting our parks and greenways and precious remaining natural spaces into a green infrastructure system for our town.
2. Community involvement. I’ve been an active voice in town for almost 20 years, both as a citizen and advisory board member, and have been a strong advocate for community participation in town government. In that time, I’ve consistently pressed the town to find ways to bring stakeholders into planning and development review processes early on, when their input can help shape outcomes. While on the Planning Commission, I’ve worked with staff and commission members to improve our outreach programs, so we are connecting with all of Chapel Hill’s different voices, not just the people regularly heard in town hall. And I fought for and led a small-area planning process so that the community—in all of its facets—could come together to set the vision for growth in an important part of town.
3. Good governance. For me, getting the details right is central to getting a job done right. I’m known by my advisory board colleagues as someone who digs into the issues that face our town to really understand our choices and their implications. I volunteer to do the painstaking work of reviewing hundreds of pages in our design manual, or a complicated development agreement, to make sure that what we’re voting on is good for Chapel Hill. It’s this kind of hard work that our residents should expect from their Council members, and if I’m elected, they can count on me to continue to deliver it.