Name as it appears on the ballot: Renuka Soll

Age: 52

Party affiliation: Democrat

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: volunteer

Years lived in Chapel Hill: 15 years 

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? 

Last year I petitioned the Town Council to sponsor a Gun Give Back event. The Council unanimously voted in favor of the idea, but then I heard nothing for many months, despite efforts to follow up. Someone should have replied. Because of this experience, I initially chose to run for office to achieve greater transparency and accountability in town government. Our town also faces many other challenges: Luxury apartments are being built with no affordable units. Mature trees are being clear cut unnecessarily. We can do better. 

I am a Southerner, born and raised in Atlanta. I am also a child of immigrants whose parents came from India. I know what it’s like to be a minority, and am grateful to be living in such a diverse community that values different cultures. My background has taught me the importance of bringing to the table the voices of individuals from marginalized groups. 

Since moving to Chapel Hill 15 years ago, I have contributed to my community in various ways. I value education, so I served as PTA president and treasurer, and currently volunteer with Orange Literacy. I desire a safe community, so I organized a Gun Give Back event and joined the board of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. I care about providing a healthy local environment, so I serve on the Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission. 

My priorities include protecting the environment, making a greener town, creating alternate modes of transportation (bike and pedestrian paths), strengthening regional transit, creating diverse types of affordable housing that people of various income levels can afford, making town government more transparent and accountable, and revitalizing downtown by creating more office spaces for start-up companies. I feel that the Council is moving in the right direction, but I would like to see stronger action taken. 

2) Given the direction of Chapel Hill government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected? 

I feel that the Chapel Hill government is going in the right direction, though we face challenges stemming from poor decisions of the past. Mayor Hemminger likens our situation to turning around a large ship: We have begun the process of correcting course, but we’re not there yet. The town government is making progress at growing sustainably by balancing growth with environmental stewardship, balancing commercial with residential development, preserving and creating housing for low- and moderate-income individuals and families, expanding parkland and recreational opportunities, and increasing government transparency and accountability. Traffic congestion and flooding continue to impact residents’ quality of life. The town is beginning to address these challenges, such as by investing in a bus rapid transit line along the town’s major north-south corridor and a stormwater retention facility in the lower Booker Creek watershed. However, much more needs to be done on other transit corridors and in other watersheds. 

To address these challenges, I will advocate for retaining more of the home-grown life science and technology-based enterprises that spin-off from UNC and from other entrepreneurs in town, conducting town-wide traffic impact analyses to inform development review, making approval of new development contingent on the availability of adequate transportation infrastructure to serve the new development, strengthening the town’s Tree Protection Ordinance to protect more of our mature canopy trees, implementing expert recommendations for mitigating flooding in the lower Booker Creek watershed, and investing in an expanded system of fast, frequent bus service. 

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

Climate change: The biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is buildings, which account for 39% of all emissions. For this reason, we should encourage – state law does not allow us to require – new construction to meet the American Institute of Architecture 2030 Challenge. These standards state that by 2020, we should reduce carbon emissions by 90% and be carbon neutral by 2030. It may seem an ambitious goal, but a carbon-neutral building – the Sancar Turkish cultural center – is already under construction in town and will serve as a model for the future. 

We should also incentivize local businesses (such as by providing a revolving loan fund) to upgrade their energy systems in ways that reduce their carbon footprint. For example, the town switched to all LED lights and upgraded mechanical systems in three town-owned facilities (Town Hall, the Wallace parking deck & Homestead aquatic center). The carbon savings from this investment was equivalent to removing 100 cars off the road. These kinds of upgrades may seem minor, but they make a difference. 

Finally, I will advocate for installing more electric charging stations around town and for continuing to transition our bus fleet to fully electric vehicles. 

Traffic congestion: There is congestion on major arterial roads throughout town during certain times of the day and many intersections have received a Level of Service rating of D or below. I avoid certain roads in the early morning, evenings, and when school lets out because I could get stuck in traffic for a long time. In addition to investing in expanded and improved public transit, we should perform town-wide traffic modeling studies to project the impact of proposed new development and make approval of new development contingent on the availability of adequate transportation infrastructure to serve the new development. The town has just allocated funds toward building the town-wide computer-based traffic model, which is an excellent first step. 

Diversify the tax base. Because of the town’s relatively small commercial tax base – UNC, as a state institution, pays no local taxes – the burden of funding local government services falls predominantly on Chapel Hill residential property owners, which contributes to our relatively high cost of living. To grow the town’s commercial tax base, we should find ways to better support the local start-up community and make the changes needed to help these enterprises remain in Chapel Hill as they grow, such as by expediting permitting for construction of office space and wet lab space. 

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 have been endorsed by Equality North Carolina and by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT). 

To my work in town government, I will bring persistence, creativity, and the experience that I have gained as an anti-gun-violence advocate, town advisory board member, leader of a local PTA, and youth sports coach. In all of these civic leadership roles, I have a record of taking initiative and getting things done. For example, I wanted a safer community so I organized a Gun Give Back event that took place in Chapel Hill on September 14th, the first such event to occur in Chapel Hill in over 20 years. After the Parkland shootings, I saw the students jump to action, and I wanted to do something too. I felt that reducing the number of guns in our town would not only be symbolic but would also increase community safety. Chapel Hill had sponsored a Gun Buyback in 1994, but a 2013 state law prohibited them from doing this again. This new law made it illegal to destroy weapons collected by the police department, including guns obtained through a Gun Buyback. Undeterred, I worked creatively to find a way to help people dispose of unwanted guns. 

First, I had to get gun permits to be able to take possession of the firearms. Second, I had to find a way of destroying the weapons because the police department couldn’t do this. The only way to render a gun useless is to cut the gun into three parts at specific places. Cutting the gun in this way ensures that no parts of the gun could be taken and sold as parts for new weapons. I had to find someone with a chop saw who would be willing to cut it for me in the precise way. At the Gun Give Back, we went through 4 blades as the guns were chopped up. After they were chopped, I gave the gun pieces to a recyclery and they were able to melt the metal. Finally, I needed to find a place to hold the event. I couldn’t use Town grounds. I found a church willing 

to host the event in their parking lot. This was the hardest part of the ordeal. Many churches rejected the request because of safety concerns, including the possibility of protesters. The church that finally agreed to do it had me attend their board meeting to answer all their questions before voting on whether to host this event. I met with the Chapel Hill police department numerous times to make sure that this would be a safe event. 

My persistence paid off, and this endeavor led North Carolinians against Gun Violence to elect me to their board. In this capacity, I have worked with PTAs, encouraging them to advocate against arming teachers in the schools and to inform parents how to ask other parents if there is a gun in their house when their child has a playdate. As a Council member, I will continue to find ways to reduce gun violence in our community and in our state. 

I have led the PTA as the president and as the treasurer. When I was treasurer, I noticed a problem with the income taxes the organization had recently filed. Moreover, I found that every tax return filed over the past five years was incorrect, but the errors were different in each year. I wrote a letter to the IRS informing them that the treasurer is a volunteer job and that I found some mistakes. They waived the penalty, and I was able to straighten out the situation. 

I currently serve on Chapel Hill’s Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission. My experience serving on the board has taught me that the Council needs to utilize the expertise of the advisory boards more than it currently does. For example, many times I and my fellow commissioners will wonder why the Town Council did not seek our input on a particular issue that is relevant to our purview. The people serving on the boards do so because they are experts on a given issue or care very deeply about it, and the town government should make better use of this resource. 

My experience as a parent coach of the Chapel Hill Mountain Biking team has taught me about Chapel Hill’s need for greater bike safety and route connectivity. The team that I coach will sometimes ride to University Mall from the high school to eat at their sponsor’s restaurant during the practice before their race. We can get through much of the way on the trails and greenways system, but there are points where we need to get on the roads and cross streets. The areas that we cross don’t have bike lanes. I watch the students carefully, but the ride always makes me nervous. I would like to see better connectivity so that not only the students but the residents can make it to different parts of our town safely. The town has already completed a town wide mobility plan that describes the gaps that need to be filled. But we need council members who will press our town manager to make steady progress at implementing the plan. 

Finally, I grew up in a part of Atlanta where I was one of only a handful of minority students in my high school. I know what it feels like to be marginalized, to have my views discounted, and for people who don’t know me to make assumptions about what I want. Because of this life experience, I am particularly sensitive to the need to include the full spectrum of the town’s voices and perspectives to our decision-making, and to make special efforts to include those from historically disenfranchised groups. 

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 support some restrictions on short-term rentals, especially on renting entire homes out like unregulated hotels. In addition to concerns about safety, neighborhood sustainability, and maintaining an even playing field in the hospitality sector, I am concerned about exacerbating the shortage of modest-priced housing for long-term renters and homebuyers. 

For residences with a permanent occupant, I support renting of space, such as an extra bedroom, on a short-term basis provided that the unit complies with certain health & safety regulations, such as fire safety; possesses appropriate insurance; and complies with all state & local tax obligations. 

All the regulations should be developed by the town through a process that solicits opinions from all stakeholders, including neighborhood associations, short-term rental operators, & local hoteliers. The rules recently adopted in Boston may be worth emulating. The Boston rules ban people from operating short-term rentals in units where they do not live; that is, operators must live-on site. This prevents companies from buying up apartments or houses in order to use them as “hotels.” 

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? 

The next steps the town can take on the affordability front that include: 

• Preserve the town’s diminishing stock of older, lower-priced homes by approving or denying re-zonings with care. Older housing stock is less expensive and new “luxury” apartments don’t bring affordable rentals. 

• Continue to support our housing partners, Community Home Trust and Empowerment, and invest in more public housing maintenance and repairs. 

• Work with UNC to provide more student housing so that the student population will not compete for off-campus housing with low- and moderate-income households. Students have said that they prefer apartment-style housing. UNC should build the type of housing that the students want to use and make sure that on-campus housing is not more expensive than off-campus housing. 

• Encourage UNC Health to subsidize new affordable housing for hospital employees in the redevelopment of the Eastowne medical center. 

• Partner with nonprofit affordable housing developers such as DHIC to build affordable housing on town-owned land, such as the Greene Tract, Jay St, Bennett Rd, and Dogwood Acres. 

• Regulate short-term rentals to discourage investors from taking housing units off the long-term rental market or the for-sale market. 

• Work with the County, the CHCSS school district and non-profit financing partners such as SECU to build and manage housing for teachers and other public sector workers, as has been done in Asheville and in other North Carolina communities. 

• Pay all town employees a “housing wage,” i.e., a wage sufficient to enable employees to afford market rate rent in town, and encourage local private employers and UNC to do likewise. 

• Make sure developers contribute to the diversity of our community by requiring them to include affordable units in their projects as a condition of approval. 

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? 

The town should grow its tax base in a way that generates net revenue by emphasizing commercial and light industrial development. Rather than offering tax rebates and other incentives to lure existing enterprises to Chapel Hill, I want us to focus on providing the infrastructure, such as flexible office space and wet lab space, that will enable Chapel Hill to retain more of the businesses that spin-off from UNC and that get their start in local business incubators such as LAUNCH. The town has made some progress in this direction in recent years, such as by creating a new light industrial zone on Millhouse Rd and partnering with Grubb Properties to build new office space in Glen Lennox and to renovate the former Bank of America building on Franklin St. I will advocate for building upon these efforts. 

After start-up companies leave places like LAUNCH, they tend to go to Durham to grow their business because they aren’t finding affordable office space here. Since most of the start-ups are coming out of UNC, we can strengthen the town-gown relationship by giving them what they need. Life science and health sciences start-ups have told us that they need wet lab space. Let’s find a way to provide it. We can help them by offering free business development services, such as talks by various local experts and specific help on different aspect of starting and growing a business. Our goal should be to nurture an “ecosystem” of small-to-mid-size science- based companies that can learn from and support each other, similar to the ecosystem of tech- based start-ups and exist in other college towns such as Boulder, CO. 

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? 

I support efforts to slow traffic on Franklin St and encourage more bicycling and walking downtown. If we want to have multi-modal transportation options for getting around, we need to set up the infrastructure to support this. Protected bike lanes and reducing crossing distances for pedestrians is important for safety. Right now, you rarely see people biking in the 

streets downtown because it is unsafe. We can change that. Additionally, as people use these various, slow-moving forms of transportation, they will be more likely to go to the retail stores and restaurants because access will be easier (no need to find a parking spot), and they will be more apt to notice these places on foot and by bike. We can have the cyclists and pedestrians on Franklin Street and the on-street parking and delivery trucks on Rosemary Street. 

In the next decade, I would like to see downtown become a vibrant area with electric buses, bicycles, pedestrian paths and fewer cars. I would like to see landscaped paths with canopy trees and art installations, unique restaurants with outdoor seating, offices with small businesses, and residents occupying the upper stories of buildings. There will be tourism and open spaces where people can gather. Downtown could again become the heart of our community. 

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? 

Chapel Hill is looking into building a central parking garage in downtown and eventually to do away with surface parking. I support this approach. Working first on town-owned parcels and then with UNC, we can redevelop downtown surface parking areas into residential, commercial, and civic space, creating an attractive and lively streetscape. Centralizing public parking will also make it easier for people to know where they need to go to park, instead of being confused as to which garage is for public parking and which is private. 

I would like the town to work with private developers to create shared parking in the Blue Hill district and in other densely built areas. Shared parking will reduce the need for each apartment or commercial project to provide parking on site. This, in turn, will enable developers to create more interesting and attractive site plans with more open space. 

Finally, I have spoken to Franklin Street business owners about what the town can do to help local merchants. Most of the businesses rely on foot traffic because people don’t want to pay for parking just to get an ice cream cone. I would like to see free parking after 6 pm instead of 8 pm as it is currently, and I think that a free week day for parking will encourage people to come downtown for lunch, an after-dinner dessert, or for a quick errand. It will also encourage people to come downtown more often. 

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

• We should enhance our free bus system by providing electric buses that run more frequently on more routes. We can pay for this with the transit tax revenues that can now be used for this purpose instead of for the light rail project. For example, we should increase the hours of bus service – such as by operating them on a regular schedule over the summer and more often on weekends – to give people more options for getting out of their cars and using other sources of transportation. We can also encourage residents to take the bus and carpool to work, school, or to shopping areas. This will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. 

• The town can invest in clean power, such as solar power, to lower our use of fossil fuels. Chapel Hill is already putting solar panels on some town buildings. We should continue to do this and reduce the carbon footprint of new construction. We need to push for solar canopies that would cover massive parking areas at Wegmans, our bus depots, and anywhere there are large areas of pavement. 

• We should fill in the gaps in our pedestrian paths and bike lane connections, especially from neighborhoods to schools and to certain retail centers. We can work with the School Board and initiate a study of school walk zones. Then we can implement the recommendations so that kids can walk or bike safely to schools. This would greatly reduce congestion and emissions. 

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

To foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups, the town can make it easier for members of these groups to participate in governmental affairs, such as by holding public input meetings in the neighborhoods where marginalized groups reside. To make it easier for members of historically marginalized groups to attend meetings that take place in Town Hall, the town can provide free transportation to the venue and free childcare on site. 

Additionally, the town should encourage members of historically marginalized groups to serve on town advisory boards, so that the boards’ decisions incorporate as broad a range of residents’ perspectives as possible. We need to offer transit and childcare so that more people can participate. If possible, we should hold seats for people of different income levels, different ethnicities, and different ages. The boards are not well-represented if we have similar types of people who just think alike. Better decisions are made when people with different backgrounds come to the table. 

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

Environmental injustice is an issue that concerns me greatly. Environmental justice refers to providing all people regardless of race, age, or income equal protection against exposure to environmental hazards. For example, housing for lower-income residents should not be concentrated in areas close to highways, where there is noise pollution and potential harmful emissions, or close to power lines. Environmental justice also entails providing all community members equal access to public infrastructure, such as water and sewer service and, where affordable units are integrated with market rate units in an apartment or neighborhood development, the affordable units should have access to the same amenities and services as do the market rate units.