Name as it appears on ballot: Damon Seils
Party affiliation: Democratic Party
Campaign website: damonseils.org
Occupation and employer: research communications, Duke University
Years lived in Carrboro: 20
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 Board of Aldermen do differently or better over the course of your term?
By running for re-election, I am seeking to build on the accomplishments of my first term and to participate in the important work ahead for Carrboro. First, Carrboro needs a comprehensive plan to guide decision making about our biggest challenges, from growth and development to affordability to climate change. I have advocated for a comprehensive plan since chairing the Planning Board ten years ago, and I am glad the town will begin this process in the coming year. Second, racial equity should be infused into all the work we do as a town and as a community. I helped spearhead an effort to send town leadership and staff to racial equity training, with the goal of moving the town toward more formal engagement in racial equity work. Though there is much more to do, I am proud that the Board unanimously decided last year to make the town a core member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and town staff are already incorporating racial equity tools and concepts into their work. Third, it is critical that we continue improving transit service by implementing Chapel Hill Transit’s Short Range Transit Plan. This plan will take our transit system to the next level by offering seven-day-a-week service in Carrboro and Chapel Hill for the first time. As a member of the policy committee for the Short Range Transit Plan, I helped to define the goals of the plan, including increasing ridership and emphasizing equity for transit-dependent communities. In my time on the Board, I have built a reputation among colleagues and community members as a leader who takes a fair, responsive, thoughtful approach to both policy and process. I look forward to engaging the entire community in our important work to meet today’s needs and plan for our future.
2) Given the direction of Carrboro government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
Carrboro is on the right course. Four years ago, I identified long-term planning and a handful of other pressing concerns as issues on which the community needed to make progress. These priorities included the long-term financial sustainability of Chapel Hill Transit; infrastructure repairs and upgrades to improve residents’ quality of life and to help us achieve the town’s climate action goals; and a renewed focus on racial equity. In my first full term on the Board of Aldermen, we have taken significant steps to advance these priorities and are positioned to achieve much more.
On long-term planning, we will soon begin developing a comprehensive plan for Carrboro that will guide decisions over the next 20 years on our greatest challenges, from growth and development to affordable housing to climate change. On the long-term financial sustainability of Chapel Hill Transit, we are deep into the implementation of a newly adopted financial sustainability plan, including the purchase of more than 3 dozen new buses to replace an aging fleet that had become costly to maintain. On infrastructure upgrades, we created a stormwater utility, which will provide long-term, sustainable funding for stormwater infrastructure and water quality projects, and we have begun upgrades to town facilities to reduce energy use.
On racial equity, former Alderwoman Michelle Johnson and I spearheaded an effort to identify funds in the town budget to send the town’s leadership to Racial Equity Institute workshops. These important trainings introduce participants to a common vocabulary and a shared understanding of the history of race, racism, and white supremacy and how these forces continue to shape our communities today. In subsequent years, we continued to identify funds to send more town staff to these trainings. Our goal was to move the town toward more formal engagement in racial equity work. I am proud that my colleagues and I unanimously decided last year to make the town a core member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. A team of town staff has taken on the leadership of this initiative, and they are joining a group of other towns and cities in North Carolina to collaborate and learn from each other as they launch racial equity initiatives across the state. Town staff are already incorporating racial equity concepts into their work and receiving training on the use of racial equity toolkits in town decision making. We have more work to do to ensure that racial equity work is infused into all the work we do as a municipal government and as a community.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
Implementing Chapel Hill Transit’s Short-Range Transit Plan. This plan, developed over many months with extensive community input, will guide local transit service in Carrboro and Chapel Hill for the next ten years and will take our local transit system to the next level by offering seven-day-a-week bus service in Carrboro and Chapel Hill for the first time. As a member of the policy committee for the Short Range Transit Plan, I was effective in shaping the goals of the project, insisting that we emphasize equity for transit-dependent communities and that we seek to make transformational change by increasing ridership, achieving significant mode shift to transit, and using the route structure to create high-frequency transit corridors. For more on local and regional transit, see my response to question #8.
Developing a comprehensive plan for Carrboro. I have advocated for a comprehensive plan for several years and am glad we are now embarking on one. Rooted in deep community engagement, Carrboro’s comprehensive plan will express a shared community vision and establish a framework for achieving that vision. It will help guide decision making over the next 20 years on growth and (re)development, town services, and more in a way that is consistent with the community’s values and is tied explicitly to the town’s financial capacity. The first year of the comprehensive planning process will focus on community engagement. It should foster conversations that encourage us to celebrate our successes and identify where needs, concerns, and vision have shifted since the town’s last community-wide visioning exercise.
Completing existing flood mitigation/repair projects and beginning additional stormwater infrastructure and water quality projects. In 2017, the Board of Aldermen took the important step of creating a stormwater utility, which will provide long-term, sustainable funding for stormwater infrastructure projects throughout the town. This important work is also connected to our broader efforts to implement the town’s Energy and Climate Protection Plan (focused on municipal operations) and our Community Climate Action Plan—which are in themselves major priorities for the town. Now that the stormwater utility is established, staffed, and collecting revenue, among the most important activities is for the staff and the volunteer stormwater advisory commission to complete their prioritization of projects so that the Board can build a capital program around their recommendations. As part of the new stormwater utility, dedicated staff are now responsible for the town’s ongoing participation in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program (which will undergo an intensive audit in 2020) and for implementing the Jordan Lake Rules for restoring water quality as those rules continue to evolve. Other immediate priorities include completing Morgan Creek stream restoration near the town’s public works facility, obtaining FEMA hazard mitigation funds to acquire or elevate certain homes along Tom’s Creek, and completing a stormwater engineering study of the Tom’s Creek watershed to help us identify workable improvements in public infrastructure there. Finally, the board should decide soon whether to authorize an expansion of the utility’s services and programs, which would require more revenue. For example, with additional fee revenue and grant matching, the utility could build capacity to implement the 2012 Bolin Creek watershed restoration plan.
4) What prior experience makes you qualified for and passionate about the Board of Alderman and its duties? What made you seek this position?
I have served on the Board of Aldermen since 2013 and am currently running for re-election to a second full term. I am running for re-election for the opportunity to lead in critical work ahead for Carrboro. We will soon begin developing a comprehensive plan to guide decisions over the next 20 years on our greatest challenges, from growth and development to affordable housing to climate change. I will continue to press for better local and regional transit, better infrastructure to support a growing and diverse community, and decision making that holds racial equity and social justice in the foreground.
Before joining the Board, I had several years of experience in town and county government. I was twice elected chair of the Carrboro Planning Board, making recommendations to the Board of Aldermen on development and land use policy. I also served on the town’s Greenways Commission. I represented Carrboro as the chair of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, advising the county’s Board of Commissioners on social justice considerations in such wide-ranging issues as fair housing, emergency preparedness and response, civil liberties, employment benefits, and marriage equality.
In other work, I am a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP, most recently serving on the branch’s Martin Luther King, Jr Service Award Selection Committee and as a discussion leader for the branch’s community book read of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s Stony the Road. I also served on the board of directors of the Carolina Abortion Fund, a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization that provides grants to low-income individuals in North Carolina who have chosen to have an abortion but cannot afford the whole cost. I frequently volunteer for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network and received the organization’s Advocate of the Year Award in 2017. As an active volunteer in the Duke University community (where I also hold my regular job), I was a longtime leader of the Duke LGBT Task Force, which works closely with students, employees, alumni/ae, and administrators to promote equality and inclusion for gender and sexual minority communities on campus and in the health system. Finally, I am a member of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials, and I am a cochair of the emerging North Carolina chapter of network.
During my time on the Board of Aldermen, and as mayor pro tempore during the past two years, I have taken a special interest in regional and statewide policy making and advocacy. It is important not only for Carrboro to have a strong voice in regional policy making, but also for me to represent the interests of Carrboro residents in both formal and informal ways, whether through representation on regional decision-making bodies, or through participation in the Moral Monday movement, or through supporting candidates around the state who can help change the makeup of the General Assembly. As one of North Carolina’s small number of openly gay elected officials, I have also worked with Mayor Lydia Lavelle and other out electeds, and with our statewide advocacy organizations, to coordinate efforts around issues of interest to our communities, including local responses to the anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker House Bill 2.
5) 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? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
I support the Board of Aldermen’s current effort to bulk up the town’s relatively new affordable housing fund. We agreed to raise the property tax rate by a total of 1.5 cents over a period of three years and to dedicate all of that new revenue to the affordable housing fund. With the help and advice of the town’s Affordable Housing Advisory Commission, this new sustainable source of revenue will give us greater flexibility to support the addition of new affordable housing units to the community’s housing stock and to help maintain the affordable units that exist today.
Already, we have looked for opportunities to make a big impact. Through the largest individual grant the town has ever provided, in partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County, affordable housing provider CASA was able to purchase a parcel on Merritt Mill Road, ensuring that these 3 centrally located acres of land will provide permanently affordable, walkable, transit-accessible housing to residents of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. I am hopeful that CASA will be successful in receiving low-income housing tax credits that will help the project move forward.
The town has also prioritized grants from the affordable housing fund to support critical home repairs, utility payment assistance, and other efforts that enable residents on low and fixed incomes to stay in their homes. In addition, a recent staff report indicates we are on the way to our goal of creating 85 affordable-ownership homes and 470 affordable-rental homes by 2024; and the challenge remains and is growing.
I am particularly interested in finding ways for the town and local partners to fill gaps identified in our homelessness services. In my time as Carrboro’s representative on the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, the leadership team with the support and expertise of the Partnership’s program coordinator, has systematically identified the missing pieces in our community’s efforts to support residents who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness. These gaps include everything from a street outreach coordinator to a low-barrier shelter to a fully funded rapid rehousing program. Partnership staff recently updated the gaps analysis with budget estimates. We know how to end homelessness in Orange County. The local jurisdictions that make up the Partnership must find the will to come together and fund the programs that will fill these gaps in our system.
It is also important that we continue to press for greater authority at the local level to address housing affordability. Local jurisdictions across North Carolina need more tools, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in other towns and cities to build a strategy for making change at the state level. As cochair of the emerging North Carolina chapter of the Local Progress network of local elected officials, with my colleague Durham City Council Member Jillian Johnson, I am committed to taking coordinated action to loosen the grip of state preemption of local control on issues like housing, workers’ rights, comprehensive nondiscrimination, environmental regulation and climate action, protection and support of immigrants, and more.
Finally, we need to be open to new zoning strategies that make it easier for property owners and developers to build more and different kinds of housing. In general, I believe development should be concentrated in areas within walking distance of public transit. Compact, walkable, transit-oriented (re)development is the best approach to promoting livability, affordability, and environmental sustainability. In Carrboro, that means we should be planning ahead for potential development and redevelopment in places like downtown and near downtown, the Jones Ferry Road corridor, and the NC Highway 54 corridor. Such development, when it occurs, should incorporate affordable housing and include a diversity of housing types, especially “missing middle” and other multifamily housing. I have long advocated that decisions about long-term growth and development in Carrboro should be guided by a community-driven comprehensive plan, and I am glad the town is now embarking on a comprehensive planning process over the next two to three years.
6) In what ways should Carrboro work on growing its tax base?
One key to growing and diversifying the tax base in Carrboro is to play to our strengths by retaining existing, longstanding businesses, such as the Cat’s Cradle and other anchor institutions, that play a significant role in drawing residents and visitors to Carrboro and thus supporting other businesses. We should always be on the lookout for opportunities to create conditions that support new and existing businesses, including new zoning strategies, such as the one I led in 2018 to expand opportunities for new and existing arts- and performance-based businesses through adaptive reuse of existing buildings downtown. Carrboro is also home to other categories of long-standing businesses, including office-based technical and entrepreneurial firms and professional services. Planning for growth downtown should engage these businesses in identifying challenges and connecting with tax credit and financing opportunities that enable local businesses to stay and grow in Carrboro.
Downtown Carrboro is one of the county’s primary economic engines, and we should encourage Orange County to invest its economic development dollars accordingly. I am hopeful that the upcoming comprehensive plan will reaffirm a vision for downtown as a district that evolves incrementally through an emphasis on infill consisting of medium-rise buildings along with a multimodal transportation network. We should complete the 203 South Greensboro project, which will house a branch library and town recreation and parks offices and encourage residents and visitors to spend more time downtown and support local businesses. We should maximize this opportunity to build as much space as we can afford in the 203 South Greensboro project, including space that could be leased to other ventures.
We can also take cues on economic development, community wealth building, and equitably shared prosperity from the recommendations of the Mapping Our Community’s Future initiative. I am a supporter of the Rogers Road zoning proposals that emerged from this initiative, which seek in part to update the town’s zoning and land use regulations to allow for more home-based businesses and other commercial opportunities in this part of town in a way that promotes the existing skills and leadership of the neighborhood’s residents.
I am glad the Board approved an updated economic development plan in late 2017 that expresses our priorities and values for supporting local economic development. The town’s economic development director has begun to provide a monthly economic development report. We have an opportunity to make sure these reports are tied to updates on the implementation of the new economic development plan.
7) The town is considering implementing a paid parking system downtown. Do you think this is a wise option? What do you think is the best course of action for the town’s parking issues? Should the town hire a consultant?
As described in the Carrboro Downtown Parking Plan, which was unanimously adopted by the Board just 2 years ago, there is significant parking capacity in downtown Carrboro. Much of it is located on private property, and publicly available parking can be difficult for people to find. The town needs to complete its parking wayfinding project (coming soon); work harder to facilitate shared parking arrangements between private property owners and between the town and private property owners; and enforce existing parking regulations to reduce long-term parking in public parking spaces that are intended for quick turnover, especially during peak times.
The decision about whether to charge for public parking will depend in large part on an upcoming study of parking enforcement and paid parking. (The town is already in the process of hiring a consultant to perform this work.) The 2017 parking plan calls for enforcement of parking rules as one approach to better manage existing parking supply. Pricing is another possibility for achieving this goal. I would like to first understand the likely effects of better enforcement.
In any case, if the town builds a parking deck (which is currently being debated, and which I oppose if is not accompanied by consolidation of existing surface parking lots, changes to downtown zoning and elimination of minimum parking requirements, and substantial commitments to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit accessibility that privilege these modes over driving), there will be little choice but to charge for parking as one way to pay for such a project. If we must charge for parking, we should explore approaches that allow for dynamic pricing to optimize management of limited parking supply, and we should invite owners of private parking lots to participate in the paid public system.
8) In your view, how can the town improve public transit, especially in terms of serving lower-income residents? How can bike lanes be made safer and more efficient?
There are a number of ways to continue improving public transit for transit-dependent community members and making our pedestrian and bicycle networks safer and more accessible. This issue is especially important to me, both because I am a regular transit user and because my peers and colleagues throughout the region have twice elected me to serve as chair of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, the regional planning body sets transportation policy and prioritizes transportation investments for the western Triangle.
Carrboro’s contribution to Chapel Hill Transit is the largest single item in the town’s annual operating budget, and this level of commitment should continue. Moreover, it is critically important that we implement Chapel Hill Transit’s Short Range Transit Plan next year. This plan will take our local transit system to the next level by offering seven-day-a-week bus service in Carrboro and Chapel Hill for the first time. As a member of the policy committee for the Short Range Transit Plan, I was effective in shaping the goals of the project, insisting that we emphasize equity for transit-dependent communities and that we seek to make transformational change by increasing ridership, achieving significant mode shift to transit, and using the route structure to create high-frequency transit corridors.
As one of Carrboro’s representatives on the Chapel Hill Transit partners committee, I also helped shape the priorities for how allocations of funding from the Orange County Transit Plan are spent locally. These priorities include improvements in nighttime and weekend service to improve access to jobs with nontraditional work hours; access to retail, health care, recreational, and education destinations for lower-income and transit-dependent residents; and better service for the Rogers Road community and other lower-income communities. Resulting service improvements have included better service on the HS route and later nighttime service on the J route, among others.
We must also continue to make improvements to regional transit service. A few years ago, we successfully advocated to bring regional bus service directly to downtown Carrboro. It is now possible for commuters and others to travel between downtown Carrboro and downtown Durham on weekday mornings and evenings, expanding access to jobs, health care, and other opportunities. As Durham and Orange Counties begin amending their transit plans in the aftermath of the discontinuation of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, it will be important to retain the regional vision embodied in those plans. There is pressure mounting to reallocate much of the transit tax revenues to local projects. Local projects are vitally important, and they should continue to receive funding through the county transit plans. We also must not lose sight of the importance of regional transit. Even without the light rail project, the challenge of the Durham-Orange transportation corridor that the project was designed to address remains. It is one of the most intensively traveled commuter corridors in North Carolina, and it will only become more challenging.
Infrastructure improvements that increase pedestrian and bicycle access to transit are also important. Carrboro recently completed a mile-long sidewalk on Rogers Road, including the installation of a new bus shelter at Purefoy Road, to improve transit access for residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. These kinds of local investments will continue as we spend funds allocated through the Orange County Transit Plan on bus access improvements, including accessibility improvements to bus stops and shelters, and new sidewalks on South Greensboro Street, Jones Ferry Road, and Barnes Street—all of which were selected for their potential to improve access for lower- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
As the town completes its update to the Comprehensive Bicycle Transportation Plan, we have an opportunity to focus the plan on what community members who ride or wish to ride bicycles have identified as high-stress areas and making those areas safer. Buffered, protected, and/or separated bicycle lanes and paths both in the urban core and in connections with outlying neighborhoods would make cycling for transportation a safer, more appealing option for more people. Designing the plan around the needs of “interested but concerned” riders, especially children and older riders, will make the network better for everyone.
I commute to work daily by local and regional bus, and I travel in town primarily by bicycle and by walking. I personally have the benefit of easy access to Chapel Hill Transit’s fare-free local bus system, employer-subsidized access to regional bus service, and living in a part of town with fairly good pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Our challenge as policy makers is to find ways for more people in Carrboro and throughout the region to have more of these options.
9) 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?
Larger demographic shifts and gentrification have also shifted the landscape for business. These shifts come on top of longstanding systemic problems, such as poorer access to capital among people of color, making it harder to make the investments required to start a new business. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have notoriously difficult processes for permitting and development, and wherever there are barriers we can expect that they have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. I’m glad the Board approved an updated economic development plan in late 2017 that expresses our priorities and values for supporting local economic development, including a focus on racial equity.
Barriers include the time it takes to get through governmental approval processes, from development review to permit approval to lack of a clear strategy for promoting business development by people color. These barriers have a disproportionate impact on people who have less access to wealth. We have an opportunity through the town’s new Economic Development Plan to build strategies around the plan’s focus on racial equity. These strategies could include rethinking how we use the town’s revolving loan fund (which currently is underused) and allocations from Orange County’s Article 46 economic development sales tax revenues.
We also must honor the work of the Rogers Road community in the Mapping Our Community’s Future initiative by supporting the Rogers Road zoning proposals that emerged from that initiative, which are intended to improve access by the community to economic opportunities by updating the town’s zoning and land use regulations to allow for more home-based businesses and other commercial opportunities in the Rogers Road community in a way that promotes the existing skills and leadership of residents. This initiative provides a powerful example of how to engage historically marginalized communities in identifying where the challenges are and what solutions make the most sense for their communities.
10) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
Thank you for your questions. More information about my re-election campaign is available on my website at damonseils.org.