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Name as it appears on the ballot: Michael Parker

Age: 69

Party affiliation: Democrat (although election is nonpartisan)

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: Health Care and Life Sciences Consultant, BioAsset Advisors

Years lived in Chapel Hill:  13 total – 3.5 as a student and 9.5 since moving to Chapel Hill in 2010

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 seeking a second term on the Chapel Hill Town Council. As I council Member, I have tried to work closely with my colleagues to move our town forward and do the people’s work. I’m pleased with what we have been able to accomplish in the areas of affordable housing, social justice and inclusivity, economic development, land use planning, and multi-modal transportation.  Although we have accomplished a great deal, there is much more to be done.

We need to address the existential challenge of our time – Climate Change — by developing a comprehensive and integrated Climate Action Plan that addresses transportation, land use, tree cover, energy efficiency, recycling, and stormwater, among many others

We must work with our affordable housing partners to continue to expand housing options for all and ensure that our affordable housing funds are spent wisely and benefit the largest number of people possible

We must continue to work toward regional transit solutions to address climate change and traffic while expanding Chapel Hill Transit and completing the North-South Bus Rapid Transit System so as to provide better access to employment opportunities

We need to continue our work in economic development, particularly for the Downtown, to bring more and better jobs for all and rebalance our tax base

Serving on the Council has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I hope that the voters of Chapel Hill, will see fit to allow me to serve our Town for another term. While we have challenges, we have far more opportunities. I am convinced that the best is yet to come for Chapel Hill, and I hope that people will work together to bring about our best future. Thank you.

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?

Overall, I believe that Chapel Hill’s government – and our Town in general – is moving in the right direction. Over the past four years we have accomplished a great deal. Examples include:

Beginning the development of an aggressive and comprehensive Climate Action Plan to address climate change mitigation and resiliency

Developing a formal affordable housing strategy and approving a $10 million affordable housing bond

Designating four parcels of Town-owned land for affordable housing (to be developed in collaboration with partners) and moving forward with a plan to rehabilitate the Town owned affordable housing neighborhoods

Moving forward with planning for our North-South Bus Rapid Transit system linking the Eubanks park and ride with the Southern Village park and ride and submitting an application to the FTA for a rating

Taking steps to improve transparency by videotaping work sessions and other Council meetings

Working to make government more accessible to more folks, especially those from historically marginalized communities, by offering translation and childcare at Council meetings, offering an allowance for childcare and transportation at our advisory board meetings, and starting a People’s Academy to bring new people into Town government

Implementing an enterprise zone to encourage R&D and light manufacturing in our town for the first time

Starting the process of revising/rewriting our Future Land Use Map (FLUM) and Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) to give greater predictability and fairness to both residents and developers

Making three rounds of changes to the Blue Hill form-based code, including a comprehensive set of design guidelines, so as to ensure that it fulfills its goal of becoming a walkable part of town

Developing the town’s first economic incentives policy and beginning to apply it to bring more commercial development and jobs to Chapel Hill

Doubling the Town’s support of the nationally recognized LAUNCH business accelerator so that they could double their space

Approving an additional 85 parking spaces for our Wallace Deck and moving forward with a plan to centralize parking on our West End through a new parking deck

But our successes cannot blind us to the work that still needs to be done – there is still much to do.

We need to finish the development of – and then implement – a comprehensive, integrated, and data-driven Climate Action Plan that clearly lays out the full range of actions that Chapel Hill, both government and residents, needs to take and the resources that will be required to do so

We need to continue our efforts to create affordable housing and make Chapel Hill affordable by ensuring that the funds from our affordable housing bond are spent wisely and efficiently and moving forward with projects like 2200 Homestead and working with affordable housing partners to leverage Town owned properties.

We need to continue to invest in Chapel Hill Transit, push forward with the North-South BRT, and work worth Orange and Durham Counties to develop regional transit solutions so that we can get folks out of their cars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ameliorate traffic.

We need to continue our work in bringing new and better jobs to Chapel Hill and developing the commercial spaces that will both house them and contribute to the rebalancing of our tax base.

We need to revitalize Downtown by bringing more residents and jobs and creating the kinds of destinations that will attract people of all ages and socioeconomic status.

We need to continue to revise and improve the Blue Hill form-based code by developing shared parking solutions, addressing building massing, improving walkability and bikeability, and getting more public green spaces.

We need to complete the work on our FLUM and LUMO so as that we as a Town are proactively driving how our town evolves, rather than reacting the plans of developers and others.

We need to improve our engagement with and the involvement of historically marginalized communities, as well as our students, in our town government.

And we must do a better job, in the Council and in the community, of working together to develop a consensus around a shared vision for the future so that we can fully realize the opportunities for greatness that Chapel Hill has.

3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.

The three most pressing issues the Town faces at this time are:

Responding effectively to the challenge of climate change – my specific actions are shown in my response to question 10.

Continuing our efforts to address affordable housing and affordability – my specific actions are shown in my response to question 6.

Economic development, including Downtown revitalization, to generate jobs and create a larger commercial tax base – my specific actions are shown in my response to questions 7, 8, and 9.

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. 

Four years ago, I was honored and humbled to be elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council. It has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I am now seeking the voters support for a second term. These past four years have taught me that the best training to be an effective Council member is to serve on Council. Although I felt that I was reasonably well-qualified when first elected, these past four years have shown me how much I had to learn to serve my constituents well. If elected to a second term, I expect to continue that learning process.

Prior to be elected to the Council, my public service experience consisted of serving as a member and chair of the Town’s Transportation Advisory Board, as a co-chair of the Central West Steering Committee (which was charged with developing a small area plan for the part of town around the Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. – Estes Drive intersection), and a member of our Planning Commission. All of these experiences helped to give me a deeper understanding of our town, of our residents’ values, and of the challenges that we faced then and continue to face. In addition, I was then and continue to be actively involved in our town’s non-profit sector, serving on the Boards of The ArtsCenter and of the Friends of the Downtown. I also served two years on the Board of our Chamber prior to being elected. These experiences have given me a better understanding of both our business and non-profit sectors and have enabled me to better respond to their needs as a Council member.

During my career as a health care and life sciences consultant I developed skills in financial analysis, strategy development, facility planning, and consensus building that I believe have served, and will continue to serve, me well as a Council member who applies an analytical framework to my decision-making and who seeks to find common ground with my colleagues on Council so that we can do the people’s work and move our town forward.

As a sitting Council member, I have focused my efforts on land use, economic development, and transit and transportation. I currently serve as the chair of both the GoTriangle Board and of Chapel Hill Public Transit Committee (the Transit Partners). I also serve on the DCHC MPO Board. I chair the Council’s Committee on Economic Sustainability.  I am also liaison to the Planning Commission and a member of both the Durham Chapel Hill Orange working group and the Chatham Orange working group. All of these roles have given me a unique perspective on our region, as well as our town, and strengthen my commitment to regional collaboration, particularly when it comes to transit.

I am pleased to have received many important endorsements from both individuals and organizations. Reflective of my commitment to social justice, environmentalism, transit, and linking land use planning to climate action, I have received the endorsements of Equality NC, the Sierra Club, the NC AFL-CIO, and NEXT. I have been endorsed by literally dozens of my fellow Chapel Hillians, including former Chapel Hill Mayors Broun, Waldorf, Foy, and Kleinschmidt.

Overall, I believe that my experiences both before and during my service on council, coupled with my record of collaboration and accomplishment while serving will continue to make me an effective representative of all of Chapel Hill.

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?

Short-term rentals (STRs) have grown rapidly in Chapel Hill and nationally over the past few years due to the emergence of AirBnB and other similar platforms. As is often the case, governmental response has lagged. We are now seeing municipalities from very small to very large struggling to find appropriate regulatory frameworks that meet the particular needs of their communities.

I view one of the primary roles of any government as protecting the health and safety of its residents and so that is my first concern about STRs – making sure that they are safe for those who use them, as well as those near them. Other concerns/questions that I have include effects on affordable housing, collection of occupancy taxes, effects on neighborhoods, and fairness to our hotels. While have concerns and questions, I also recognize the benefits they provide: helping many folks, particularly artists and retirees, afford their homes by providing a supplemental income stream and providing places for visitors, family members, and those being treated at UNC with affordable and congenial places to stay. 

I divide STRs into three types (although many authorities divide them into only two): owner-occupied STRs in which the owner lives on site and rents out bedrooms or an accessory dwelling unit; whole houses or apartments that are only rented out for brief periods when an owner who normally lives there is away; and investor-owned or non-owner occupied units that are available for rent 365 days a year. The former two are not generally thought of as being problematic. Non-owner occupied STRs have proven problematic in many jurisdictions and should be the focus of any regulatory intervention.

Recognizing that I am not an expert and that we have both a Town task force and a nationally recognized expert, Rebecca Badgett, working on this, my initial thoughts based on research that I have done are as follows: First, there should be a permitting and inspections system for all STRs to ensure safety. Second, adequate liability insurance should be required as part of the permitting process. Third, mechanisms should be in place to collect the relevant occupancy taxes, either through the reservation platform or individual owners. And finally, there should be enforcement of nuisance rules (e.g., noise, litter, parking). Non-owner occupied STRs require a higher level of regulation, focused on compliance with zoning rules and regulations since they are effectively small inns which currently require a specific level of zoning approval in Chapel Hill. At a minimum, I believe that they will need to be restricted as to which neighborhoods they can operate in, have some minimum parking standards, and require some formal application/approval process. 

As I noted above, the Council has appointed a task force comprising representatives from STR owners, the hotel community, selected Town advisory boards, and members of the general public to work with Town staff in bringing forth recommendations to the Council. The initial focus of this work will be on non-owner occupied STRs. Only after a regulatory framework for this type of STR has been developed, will consideration be given to other types.  In addition, the Town has retained Ms. Badgett to assist it so that I am confident that the recommendations that come forward will be sound ones.  

I have also done some research into the topic. I have not found another town’s regulatory framework that I could recommend that we adopt in toto, although Wilmington’s seems like the best one that I seen so far. Conversely, I believe cities like Asheville’s and Austin’s regulatory frameworks are unduly harsh (although I recognize their unique situations, such as the large number of B&Bs in Asheville) and I would not advocate for their adoption. Ultimately, I believe each town/city needs to develop a framework that responds to its individual needs. I also believe that given the relative novelty of STRs, it is likely that whatever framework is developed will need to change and evolve over time.

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? 

As you rightly note, affordable housing remains a concern, not just in Chapel Hill, but nationally. Due to the actions of my predecessors, Chapel Hill is recognized as leader both regionally and nationally in addressing affordable housing – in a state that makes it difficult to do so. Over the past few years, using such strategies as the “penny for affordable housing” we have continually expanded the resources that we are committing to affordable housing – we spend some six percent of the Town’s budget on affordable housing and the approximately 350 units of affordable housing that the Town owns makes us one of the largest affordable housing providers in Orange County.  Our use of land donations coupled with cash contributions in partnership with DHIC – a LIHTC provider — has enabled us to achieve a notable success on Legion Rd., with a total of 149 permanent affordable housing units for those at low income levels. Our inclusionary zoning ordinance (and the policy that preceded it) has enabled us to work with the Community Home Trust to create owned affordable housing. Unfortunately, our efforts in creating affordable rental housing as part of our development processes have been less successful. Our Council adopted the first formal Affordable Housing Strategic Plan, along with a publicly accessible dashboard for monitoring our progress. Going forward, we need to build on our successes and keep doing many of things we are currently doing, but also add or expand some dimensions as outlined below.

First, as regards the affordable housing bond and other Town funds, experience has shown us that we are most successful when we partner with regional affordable housing providers. The DHIC example cited above, for example, allowed us to obtain those 149 units at an average cost to the Town of only $25,000/unit, inclusive of the value of the land and cash contributions, when constructing those units on our own would have cost us upwards of $175,000/per unit. As we decide how to spend the affordable housing funds, our priority needs to be on working with community partners to minimize the Town funds required and maximize the number of units we create or preserve using these funds. 

Second, is the use of Town land. Our ability to contribute seven acres of land to DHIC made a real success possible. As chair of the Town Properties Task Force, I led a group that identified a number of Town properties that could be used for affordable housing – two on Jay Street and one on Plant Rd. (subject to its being vacated after the construction of a new Municipal Services Center). Subsequent work by the Town staff, identified four more – an additional property on Jay St., a property on Bennett Rd., and two properties near Dogwood Acres Dr. The Council has directed the staff to move ahead with developing more specific plans for these sites, which will likely include working with partners and, perhaps, using some of the affordable housing bond proceeds.

Third, we need to reexamine both our inclusionary zoning ordinance and our affordable rental policy. In regard to the ordinance, it was first conceived when there was a significant amount of for sale housing being built in Chapel Hill and developer margins were relatively high. Since the recession of 2008, however, things have changed. There is far less for sale development happening in Chapel Hill and margins and financing requirements are such that we rarely are able to secure either the numbers of units (15 percent) or the AMI levels (half at 65 percent, half at 80- percent). Increasingly, the units we obtain are at the 80 percent level and above, which is helpful to be sure, but leaves out those most in need. We need to revisit the ordinance and ascertain if changes are needed to make it more realistic and ensure that we are continuing to achieve our goals. Our affordable rental policy also requires 15 percent of units be affordable but leaves open the option of a payment in lieu (PIL). However, there is no defined methodology for determining the level of PIL. As a result, the town has received very few actual units and the PILs received have been very variable and usually quite low. At my request, via a petition to the Council, our Housing Advisory Board and Town staff have been working on a methodology that would be fair, predictable, and at a level that would encourage developers to provide units rather than a PIL. We are also working to make sure that the methodology reflects market realities in terms of developers being able to secure investors and financing for projects that include affordable units.

Fourth, we need to be more proactive in addressing the situation of our mobile home parks, all of which are on or near transit corridors and are likely to be targets for significant redevelopment in the foreseeable future.  The threatened redevelopment of the Lakeview park on Weaver Dairy Road was a wake-up call for the Council and our staff. Working with the Family Success Alliance and other partners we surveyed the residents and learned about their needs and desires – wanting to maintain their sense of community and keep their children in the Chapel Hill school system; and their need to be close to public transit so they can get to their jobs, for example.

However, I do not believe that we have been aggressive enough in coming up with a long-term strategy. I believe that we should at least be exploring options such as co-op arrangements that would have the town purchasing land for the construction of new housing for these residents – likely in partnership with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity – that they could then own. Over 20 or 30 years they could then pay back the Town, own their homes and the underlying land, thereby building equity for themselves and their children. Even if this option proves to be financially infeasible due, for example, to Chapel Hill’s high land costs, I believe that we should be planning with our mobile home park residents so that when one or more of the parks become targets of redevelopment we are prepared with robust solutions.

Finally, and most controversially, I believe that as part of our Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) rewrite we need to explore allowing duplexes, triplexes, quads, etc., into more areas of our Town, including some that are zoned single family only. A prior Council greatly expanded the areas in which Accessory Dwelling Units are allowed, and this would be a logical next step. By doing so, we can expand housing choices overall – addressing the “missing middle” – as well as increase the number of private sector affordable units. Durham has made such zoning changes and I believe that their experience in both securing the changes and post change implementation will be invaluable for Chapel Hill.

As noted above, affordable housing is an extremely difficult problem confronting our entire nation and there are no easy solutions nor home runs. We in Chapel Hill have been working on this challenge for many years, we have made significant strides, but we still have much work to do. I hope to be able to keep doing this important work for the next four years.

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?

An important way for Chapel Hill to grow its tax base is through the construction of new retail/commercial spaces, although multifamily buildings, particularly condos such as Greenbridge and 140 West, can also be valuable.  In a perfect world, these would be multi-story buildings with retail on the first floor (to generate sales tax revenues) and multiple stories of office space above (to generate property tax revenues and provide needed space for new jobs).  We have found, however, that the market is not providing those buildings. Accordingly, the Town is applying the economic incentives policy that we adopted about two years ago to try to get initial buildings out of the ground and prove to the market that such buildings are viable in Chapel Hill. Specifically, we have granted an economic incentive to Grubb Properties that, if all terms are complied with, help them build about 488,000 sq. ft. of offices as part of their redevelopment of Glen Lennox.

While I think that in this case the use of an incentive package was warranted, I also believe that incentives should be the last thing we do to spur commercial development – and that we should obtain and analyze robust financial data before we do so. 

Chapel Hill also needs to enhance its role as a center of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have an engine of innovation in UNC and we need to work collaboratively with them to ensure that the companies that are spun out are able to grow and expand here in Chapel Hill. We have already taken steps in this direction by doubling our support for LAUNCH, expanding the Wallace deck’s capacity by 85 spaces, and creating the enterprise zone in the northern part of town. Other things we can do include continuing to invest in infrastructure – for example the creation of a new parking deck in the Downtown’s west end that will allow many more jobs to take root there – and getting out of people’s way. In regard to the latter, we have to revamp our permitting and inspections processes so that businesses that are seeking to locate or expand in Chapel Hill can do so easily without the expense and delays we currently impose on them. We have a significant opportunity to capitalize on the innovative businesses being spun out of UNC – and also become a place where innovation from elsewhere can take root – and we need to make it easy for these businesses to stay and come here.

Finally, we know that businesses want to locate and stay in great places. We need to focus on making Chapel Hill an even better town than it already is, with great public amenities, such as parks and greenways, cultural arts facilities and events, and recreational facilities; a robust public transit system; public infrastructure such as parking; and a commitment to being a leader in addressing climate change and caring for our natural environment. Research has shown that in the long run, a town’s competitive advantage lies in who and what it is, not the level of incentives that it can provide.

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?

Downtown Chapel Hill was once the economic center of the town – there were Fowler’s supermarket and a Belk’s there – it was where residents went to shop on a regular basis. While those days are gone, I believe that our Downtown must be the social and emotional center of town. The 100 block of East Franklin is iconic – it is what most folks picture when they think about Downtown. And it is, appropriately, dominated by student-oriented businesses. Although UNC has significant plans for this block, both in terms of moving its admissions office there and making a major commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship at the former CVS Plaza, it will remain largely UNC and student focused.

 I envision a complementary, but different future for West Franklin. And I would add at the outset, that I don’t believe that we can discuss West Franklin without addressing West Rosemary – if we are to have the vibrant future for Downtown, then both must be addressed. My vision for the western part of Downtown is of a thriving, vibrant area of town that combines new residents, new jobs, new destinations, and better mobility options to create a place where residents and visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status want to be.

I believe that to help Downtown, particularly the west end, thrive we need more non-student residents Downtown, living in a mix of for sale and rental units that are affordable to a broad range of individuals. Doing so will provide the people to patronize current and future Downtown businesses. Given the relatively large amount of underdeveloped land on Rosemary (much of it currently devoted to surface parking), I would expect new residential development to be focused here. 

We need more office-based jobs Downtown. Such jobs would also support Downtown businesses and could create a thriving lunch business for our restaurants. By creating this new revenue stream, it would help our restaurants better deal with the high rentals on Franklin. It would also contribute to vibrancy by putting more “feet on the street” and creating an after-work bar business. Perhaps more important, it would create a nexus for innovative and entrepreneurial companies for both the Downtown, as well as the town as a whole. I am pleased to say that this is beginning, with the renovation of the former Carolina Ale House into office space for a med tech company that will accommodate 90 new jobs. And although the details cannot be disclosed, there is an ongoing discussion about an opportunity to bring as many as 400 new jobs to this area. While there are some opportunities on West Franklin for this, as with residential, the large amount of underdeveloped land on West Rosemary makes this the likely site for expansion. 

We also need more destinations Downtown. We need a variety of cultural arts opportunities to bring folks back downtown. While new residents and jobs should create the demand that the private sector to meet, I believe the Town can play an important role as well through public-private partnerships. Two possible opportunities: first, the Town issued an RFP several years ago for a mixed-use building on its parking lot at 415 West Franklin that would have had some combination of entertainment, housing, and commercial spaces. Although there was private sector interest, the inability to park it made the project infeasible. As discussed below, a new Town parking initiative could bring this opportunity back to life. A second and more ambitious opportunity would be to create a public-private partnership to develop a cultural arts center combined with commercial office space on Parking Lot No. 2 at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia Streets. Such a facility could both meet well documented community needs for such a facility as well as become a landmark at the Town’s second most important intersection.

One essential ingredient to making all of this happen is access. Today, we don’t have enough convenient ways for people to get Downtown or park if they get there by car. First parking. While no one is more committed to getting people out of cars than I am, the reality is that for the foreseeable future, driving will be the dominant mode of transport in Chapel Hill. Recognizing this, the Council recently approved a plan to add 85 more spaces to the Wallace Deck and we are likely to approve a new 400-450 space deck in the west end. Such a deck could unlock the economic development opportunities for the Downtown in terms of both supporting retail businesses, new destinations and new jobs.

We also need to make the Downtown more bike and pedestrian friendly, which is where the restriping comes in.  First, the design speed of West Franklin is higher than its posted speed, resulting in cars going faster than they should and creating hazards for both pedestrians and bicyclists. Further, fast moving cars harm our businesses as they do not have the time to notice our stores and possibly stop to patronize them. Restriping, once the appropriate analysis has been done, should go a long way toward addressing these issues.

Finally, in the coming years we have to work toward providing better access to the Downtown in the evenings and on weekends. One major improvement will be our North-South Bus Rapid Transit system, which provide high-frequency, high quality service from the Eubanks park and ride to the Southern Village Park and ride. Service will be seven days a week until about 11 PM. This will be an important step toward improving public transit access to Downtown. It is also my hope that within a ten-year timeframe we will have an East-West BRT providing connections from the Eastowne area to Carrboro.

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?

Currently our downtown parking is a mix of privately, UNC, and Town controlled parking scattered across a number of lots and decks. Coupled with inadequate signage and different rules (e.g., UNC’s recent decision to charge for nighttime parking) this causes a great deal of confusion for residents and visitors alike. The Town has made improvements to signage and has taken over management of the former CVS deck, but more is needed. As noted previously, the Town is considering the construction of a large (450 spaces) deck on the west end. This will both increase capacity and allow us to centralize parking, both of which would be substantial improvements. Further, by centralizing parking, we will be able to convert some of our small surface lots to more productive uses such as pocket parks, amenity spaces, or new building.

Another change we are exploring, which will likely be necessary to make the new deck financially feasible, is to move to a payment in lieu system for parking. Currently the Town does not have parking minimums for Downtown, although to obtain financing for any project, developers need to provide on-site parking. The goal would be to have developers pay the Town for access to the new deck, thereby relieving them of significant capital costs and creating a cash stream to pay the debt service on a new deck. While further analysis is required to ensure that this is both pragmatic and financially feasible, I believe that such a change would make a significant difference in our parking situation in the west end.

10) The town has environmental awareness as one of its goals. Name three ways you believe Chapel Hill can work toward this goal. 

The goal is more than one of environmental awareness. The central issue is climate change and what we as a Town can do to mitigate it and enhance our resiliency because the simple fact is that climate change is not something that is coming – it is already here. If we don’t respond to it quickly, boldly, and effectively, nothing else that we do will matter much to our children and grandchildren.

It is often stated that climate change is a Federal and state problem and that there is little that a town such as Chapel Hill can do. This is false. While there are critical things that we need these governments to do — regulating coal fired generating plants for example — there are important things that we in need to do. 

Case in point. Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse emissions in North Carolina — soon to be the largest. The most important thing that we can do to reduce these emissions is cutting vehicle miles travelled (VMT).  We must get people out of their cars. This is where Chapel Hill comes in. 

The combination of smart land use planning and the provision of multi-modal transportation — particularly transit — is the most important thing we can do to reduce VMT. We need to stop sprawling and create compact, mixed use neighborhoods that are walkable, bike-able and connect to transit. And only Chapel Hill can do this for Chapel Hill. Regardless of what the Federal and State governments do or don’t do, it is incumbent upon us to take action now.

I am proud that Mayor Pam Hemminger is one of over 400 climate action mayors across the country who have committed to the Paris Accords. It is now time for us to develop a Climate Action Plan that implements the goals articulated by the mayors, such as zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Such a plan must be:

Goal and data driven: We need to have goals (e.g., for reductions in VMT and other emission sources) and milestones at five-year intervals so that we can measure progress and modify the plan. We should use data to ensure that we focus our efforts on the actions that will be most impactful.

Comprehensive and integrated: Our plan must address the full range of actions that we need to take, ranging from land-use and transportation planning, to changing building codes to mandate energy efficiency, to promoting alternative/renewable energy, to waste creation and disposal, to tree preservation and planting. 

Resiliency focused: We must also adapt to the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing, such as more severe and more frequent adverse weather events. Our plan needs to include steps to mitigate the effects of these events through, for example, more effective stormwater management.

Focused on social equity: The effects of climate change will not be felt equally across the income and race divide. We must ensure that our plan spreads both the benefits and costs of our plan equitably.

I also want to stress that addressing climate change is not all about sacrifice. Apart from the climate associated benefits, there are other real paybacks of climate action. The social and health benefits of walkable neighborhoods, the green spaces that we will create, and the greenways that will be constructed will all promote a much higher quality of life for our residents and make us much more attractive to the kinds of businesses that we are striving to attract. 

I recognize that this is an ambitious agenda. It will require that our residents come together to develop and implement the plan in a way that may be new and challenging for us. And it will clearly require a commitment of resources that may require that we reorder some of our priorities. Responding to climate change is not going to be easy and it will require that we as governmental leaders be strong advocates and enlist the support of our residents. While some may question our ability to do this, I am convinced that we can I am convinced that we can. We really have no choice.

11) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?

Chapel Hill has long prided itself on being a welcoming and inclusive community and in most ways we are. However, we need to do a better job in engaging with historically marginalized groups – as well as our more recent immigrant populations.

We have not done enough to ensure that non-English speakers are fully able to participate in Town activities. It was only recently that the Town provided Spanish-speaking interpreters at a Council meeting (when the problems of the Lakeview Mobile Home Park were being discussed). To our credit, we have started doing this on a more regular basis. We have to be more proactive and do more for such individuals.

Working with UNC, Chapel Hill has begun the Building Integrated Communities Project (BIC). BIC is a two-year collaboration between the Town of Chapel Hill, local community groups and residents, and the statewide Building Integrated Communities program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill BIC is a community planning project, which means that community members and government staff are working together to develop town plans. The goals of Chapel Hill BIC are to:

• Share and build knowledge about Chapel Hill’s foreign-born and refugee communities

• Improve relationships and communication with foreign-born “newcomers” to Chapel Hill

• Support resident participation in local government

Achieving these goals is a three-phase process. The first phase, a community assessment, gathered information on immigrant and refugee residents and their recommendations to improve local government. Chapel Hill’s 2018 Community Assessment Report reflects the valuable input of more than 250 local residents. The next two phases of the initiative are action planning and implementation. 

The Town’s Action Plan, published in February 2019, was jointly developed in collaboration with representatives from Chapel Hill’s immigrant and refugee focused organizations.

We also have to do a better job in reaching out to people when we are deliberating about issues that are of concern to them. I was pleased that when we were starting the process of responding to threats faced by those living in our mobile home parks, we engaged the Family Success Alliance to meet directly with the residents to better understand their needs and desires. We need to utilize this approach more frequently so that we are planning with people instead of planning for them.

Another area where we are making progress relates to our public housing communities. Chapel Hill recently appointed a new Director of Public Housing who, working with our Housing and Community staff is taking action to provide more opportunities for participation in governance. The resident councils, one for each public housing neighborhood, are being revived, although there have been some challenges in securing enough resident volunteers to participate. 

Chapel Hill has also started a Peoples Academy, which is a 5-week, 10-class opportunity to learn, connect and lead. Participants gather at Town or Town partner facilities to learn more about services, connect with their fellow community members, and gain valuable knowledge and understanding to lead in the Chapel Hill community. The goal is for individuals who have not traditionally been engaged with Town governance to develop the knowledge and connections to do so. We recruit for participation at our public housing neighborhoods. Results to date have been positive, with a number of graduates of our first Academy applying for and securing positions on Town advisory boards. Our second session is currently underway. Hopefully, some of these individuals will choose to run for Town office.

Overall, I am pleased with the progress we are making but I also recognize that there is more to be done.

12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Although Chapel Hill is an affluent community and we do not face any immediate financial crisis, it has become clear that we have a significant financial issue to deal with. Over the past several years, our expenses have been rising at a rate of approximately 3.4 percent per year, while our revenues have been rising at about half that – 1.7 percent a year. This is clearly unsustainable, as we’ve has to use fund balance to make up the difference.

As noted in question 3, expanding our commercial tax base will help in this regard, but it is not possible for us to do that quickly – it is a long-term strategy.  The Council has recognized this challenge ands we have tasked the manager with bringing strategies to us so that we can begin taking meaningful action sooner rather than later. We are also moving toward developing a five-year rolling budget to give the Council and our residents longer-term visibility into what is likely to happen in terms of taxes and overall spending. I also requested that the Town undertake a benchmarking/efficiency study so that the Council and our residents can be confident that our tax dollars are being spent well. I was not able to have it included in this year’s budget, but it has been promised for next year.

The important thing is that we as town leaders recognize that we appear to have a structural challenge and that we deal with now, before it becomes a crisis.

A second challenge that I would like to discuss is that of bicycle infrastructure. Over the years, the town has made modest investments in bicycle infrastructure, but without a sufficient sense of urgency. Two things – one a challenge, one an opportunity – make this extremely timely. First, as discussed in questions 3 and 10, responding effectively to climate change requires that we simply get people out of cars. 

One of the best ways to do this is by facilitating and encouraging cycling. The opportunity is the one represented by E-bikes. Chapel Hill is aptly named. We have many hills that an average cyclist simply can’t negotiate. E-bikes can “flatten” the town. As a result, the ROI on bicycle infrastructure and greenways will be vastly increased. Thus, we need to accelerate the funding for upgrading and expanding our bicycle infrastructure and also develop an E-bike share program, something our staff is currently exploring.