Name as it appears on the ballot: Amy Ryan
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: AmyRyan.org
Occupation & employer: Chapel Hill Town Council member/freelance book editor
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 26
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
I believe in a Chapel Hill where we live the values we profess: truly making a place for everyone, caring about the land and water that nurture us, being good fiscal stewards, and using our resources for the betterment of everyone in our community.
During my first term, Council did just that. We charted a new way forward in managing growth and development, so we add needed housing by building community, not just big apartment blocks. We reached a compromise on the Legion property that will give us the fifth-largest park in town and affordable housing for 120 families, plus saving the forests and streams. And we’ve supported a broadly progressive agenda – creating climate-friendly land-use plans, working to increase housing supply and diversity, taking real steps on climate action, and expanding our greenways to make our town more bikeable and walkable.
It’s exciting to see the progress we’re making, and I’m running for a second term to keep the forward momentum going. We’ll have a very new council next year – at least six of the members will have two years of Council service or less. As the only incumbent in this year’s Council race, and with fifteen years of advisory board service under my belt, I bring years of experience to the job: I know the people, the issues, and how to work with my colleagues and the community to get things done. I approach the work with a practical outlook and collaborative spirit, listening to all sides, digging into the details, and balancing competing interests to reach good outcomes for us all. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves to make the next four years as successful as my first.
2) If you don’t currently serve on the town council, what is something members could be doing better? If you do, what has been your biggest accomplishment during your time in office?
I’ve been working toward better planning and growth management in Chapel Hill all through my twenty years of town service. In 2021, I authored a petition to the town (supported by six colleagues) to request that we embark on the planning process that ultimately produced the Complete Community framework.
A joint housing study by UNC and the town had made it clear that for us to become a more vibrant, equitable, and diverse place, we needed to build more places for people to live and better meet the needs of different types of people, like single parents, downsizing seniors, and first-time buyers. Toronto planner Jennifer Keesmaat showed us how to plan more progressively and holistically; the resulting Complete Community framework gives Chapel Hill a road map for growth that gets us the diverse housing we need and the inclusive, connected neighborhoods we want. I’m especially excited about our plans to connect the town with an Everywhere to Everywhere greenway network, adding 25 miles of new trail and creating a townwide transportation system and linear park that will link people to each other and to work, shops, and school – all without a car.
The framework, supplemented by our new Shaping Our Future transit-oriented development plan, is solidly rooted in environmental concerns and will advance the town’s climate goals by getting more people living on less land and relying less on cars for transportation, as well as determining which important natural areas and open spaces we need to preserve for the health of our environment, and the health of our community members.
The most important job for me next term is executing on this vision and developing the plans and regulations that will make it part of the town’s DNA and our new way of planning for the future.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
1. Improving the way we grow and develop
With my master’s degree in landscape architecture, graduate work in design history, placemaking, and sustainability, and extensive town service, I’ve been working on these issues for decades. It’s exciting to see something that I’ve focused on for so long coming to fruition, and I’m really encouraged by direction in which we’re heading.
First, there’s housing. We’re addressing our housing shortage and managing growth in a smart new way through the new Complete Community framework, setting out a progressive, realistic vision for creating denser, community-oriented, walkable neighborhoods, meeting our goals for housing more people in a wider range of housing types, and making our land use align with climate best practices.
Another important housing effort was addressing historically exclusive zoning patterns. Our new Housing Choices ordinance allows duplexes and small cottages in single-family neighborhoods, as well as triplexes and quads in areas zoned for multifamily. I support the ordinance, but was concerned about incentivizing tear-downs and student stuffers in our Historic Districts. I did graduate work in vernacular design history at State, so preserving this part of our craft heritage is very meaningful to me. Jess Anderson, Pam Hemminger, and I supported removing duplexes from Historic Districts (leaving accessory units and small cottages as a new option there), and I proposed that as a friendly amendment during the Council vote, which was rejected. I voiced my support for most of the ordinance but, knowing that the ordinance would pass without me, I voted no to signal my concern about the potential destructive impacts on this important part of our town’s history.
Second, there’s process. To get the kind of new communities we want, and attract the developers who will build them for us, we need to move away from the old control-intensive model of review to one that’s more streamlined, legislating standards where state law allows, retaining Council review where it matters, and creating clear guidelines for achieving the Complete Community vision.
And third, there’s ordinance. We’re rewriting our land-use ordinances (LUMO) to codify these changes and build them into the way we do business going forward. I’ve been working with LUMO for twenty years and want to be there to get it right.
2. Taking action on climate and the environment
It’s our duty to leave a legacy of climate action to the generations who will inherit the earth after we’re gone. I’m incredibly proud that Chapel Hill adopted the area’s first climate action plan in 2021. We’re on track to meet our goals, and we have a detailed plan to get us there. We’re tackling the issue on lots of levels – better land-use planning, reducing car trips and energy use, greening the grid, and preserving the natural areas that keep our environment, and our residents, healthy. I’ll continue to support, and help accelerate, the good work we’ve been doing on sustainability.
During my first term, I was a strong and effective voice on environmental issues, including pressing pause on plans to build stormwater basins that would destroy bottomland forest without significantly reducing flood damage. I also rallied environmental interests to advocate for preserving an ecologically unique Natural Heritage area at UNC-Health’s Eastowne office development. During the upcoming land-use ordinance rewrite, I’ll be looking to create strong protections for tree canopy, stream buffers, and steep slopes to protect people’s water quality, mitigate heat island effects, and preserve habitat. Just as importantly, we must fulfill our other environmental obligation to the future — to build in smarter, denser, more connected ways on the land that remains.
3. Budgeting for the future
We’ve made a good start in reversing old short-term ways of planning for our financial future by instituting a new five-year budgeting system, and it’s crucial that we continue. Our goal is to maintain the high standard of services our residents expect and be proactive in anticipating capital needs. And we need to balance these “must-haves” with our aspirational spending – on affordable housing, new park facilities, and institutions like the library — as well as making sure we’re being fair to taxpayers.
Better budgeting is just a start. We’re taking as much burden off residents as we can in as many ways as possible; see question 6 for more details!
4) Local government, given the construction of the North Carolina constitution, is often highly limited in its jurisdiction. How would you best leverage the powers of the town council? What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
Council does everything possible to operate effectively in the restrictive environment in which we find ourselves. We push the envelope on progressive policies, take public stances on important issues that affect the people of our town and North Carolina, work with our local state elected officials to get our interests before the legislature, and partner with groups like Metro Mayors and the League of Municipalities to understand the legislative climate and work as best as we can within it.
One of the most important ways that Council leverages its power is by working as a team. We’re most effective when we find ways to pull together for the good of the town, despite our differences. Over the years, I’ve built a reputation as a team player, as someone who listens to others and works effectively across coalitions, who can balance competing interests around the dais to reach good outcomes for us all.
In terms of prior experience: I joined my first town committee in 2003, while I was studying for my master’s degree in landscape architecture. Since then, I’ve served in many different roles, and I’m still putting that interest in land planning, community, and the environment to work for the town. We’ll have a very new Council next term – at least six members will have between zero and two years of Council service. My long track record will help me anchor the group, bringing both expertise and institutional knowledge to our deliberations.
History of Chapel Hill board service:
Planning Commission (3 terms; 2 years as chair)
Community Design Commission (2 terms)
Central West Focus Area Steering Committee (co-chair)
Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force
Morgan Creek Trail Conceptual Plan Committee
Council committee service:
Historic District Commission
Parks, Recreation and Greenways Commission
Community Home Trust Board
Stormwater Advisory Board
Booker Creek Stormwater Working Group
Orange County Climate Coalition
Orange-Durham Metropolitan Planning Organization
My history of effective service, and a strong first term on Council, has earned me the following endorsements in 2023:
AFL-CIO (2019 also)
Equality NC (2019 also)
Sierra Club (2013, 2019; 2023 pending)
Anderson-Thorpe-Battle Breakfast Club
Triangle Blog Blog
5) Community members frequently show up to town council meetings to share that they work in Chapel Hill but cannot afford to live here. With rising rents, even some that already live here are worried they will no longer be able to afford it. The town recently passed an affordable housing plan and investment strategy, which provides a general path forward. Do you support this plan? How would you, on the council, move forward to increase Chapel Hill’s affordable housing stock?
I absolutely support the plan, and voted for it.
Our housing department does a great job, and their effective strategies, along with our substantial investment, have made us a regional leader in creating and preserving housing affordable for families at 80% of AMI and below. We work with community partners, donate town land, pursue tax credits, provide subsidies (like $2.5 million in ARPA funding), and negotiate for affordable units in new development. We just negotiated a $5 million contribution from UNC-Health to a revolving housing loan fund and increased the affordable housing fund to a full penny on the tax rate. Since 2018, we’ve preserved or produced affordable units for more than 1,000 families, and we have 800 more in the pipeline.
I want to keep that momentum going. The extent of the need and the resources required are sobering, and we’ll be having some hard conversations about balancing our aspirations here with the town’s other needs. But I believe that making our town more affordable to more people – especially those who work in our hospital, businesses, government, and schools — is the smart thing to do, and the right thing to do if we want Chapel Hill to be a place for everyone.
On a related issue, we recognize that much of our naturally occurring very affordable housing is a prime target for redevelopment. Council is talking about ways to get out front of this problem and involve owners in finding solutions that either prevent displacement (as was done with great success at Glen Lennox) or provide displacement assistance (housing relocation services and money for deposits/moving expenses, like we did at the Park Apartments). I’m hoping that the recent $5 million in seed money from UNC-Health will help us find other solutions for preserving (and improving) this kind of naturally occurring affordable housing.
We’re also trying to make housing more attainable for those who fall outside the AMI definitions of needing affordable housing, but who can’t find a place to rent or buy that’s within their budget. We’re doing everything we can to create more supply, and more kinds of housing – allowing duplexes and cottages in single-family neighborhoods, approving more (a lot more) townhomes and condos, and committing to approving almost 500 new units of housing a year.
I want to make sure that Chapel Hill welcomes everyone, and that means we need to continue this good work on housing, using the levers we have, wherever we can, to make us more affordable and more accessible to more of the people who want to live here.
6) In June, Chapel Hill approved its largest tax hike in years. In a town built around a tax-exempt public university with large land holdings, how can the council finance future projects? Should the town look to build a larger commercial base? Increase residential taxes? Some other way?
First, let’s talk about last year’s tax increase. It was the result of some unusual factors – including very conservative town budgets during the COVID pandemic, unusual inflation, and significantly higher labor costs. There were also longstanding issues – the town hadn’t been raising taxes to keep up with baseline inflation for a very long time, and former managers were doing year-by-year budgets, which were preventing the kind of long-term planning that keeps us on track.
We’ve course-corrected. The manager is now working with a five-year budget outlook, so we can make sure that we’re planning for predictable expenses like replacing aging fleet vehicles and keeping staff compensation regionally competitive. We’re on a much more sustainable path and can identify and meet long-range needs without sudden shocks to taxpayers, and we have a clear idea of what we can afford moving forward.
Second, you’re right that there are some challenges inherent in being the home of a state university, where a huge proportion of our land (about a third) is owned by the state and off the tax rolls. The town has been working hard to increase our commercial tax base – we’ve actually moved the needle from 27% to 34% (on our way to a healthy 40% share). We’ve got big plans for downtown, with some new wet-lab office buildings approved or in review, which will add significantly to our revenue. As we densify within our Complete Community framework, we’ll be concentrating development, increasing the tax yields on our land, and will use our infrastructure more efficiently, spreading costs across more people and businesses. We also take as much burden off residents as we can by increasing sales tax revenue with economic engines like Wegmans (now the largest sales tax producer in town).
Rebalancing the tax base, adding density, and increasing sales-tax generators will help give us the money we need to meet our obligations in the future, and for big new ideas in affordable housing, parks facilities, and infrastructure projects. Smart planning lets us leverage these ideas into planning grants, which in turn give us shovel-ready designs when state or federal money becomes available (like the huge pool of infrastructure money in the federal Inflation Recovery Act). We’re partnering with experts at the Central Pines Regional Council to make sure we’re setting ourselves up to be highly competitive for these and other grants in the future.
A last note: Anyone who cares about affordability has to care about the impact of raising taxes. For many of our homeowners, the effect of this year’s increase is small (less than $20 a month for a median-priced home). But we understand that even that can be too much for some people’s budget, so we also allocated $100,000 for a fund to provide tax relief to those families.
7) Much of the work of the town council involves judging rezoning requests for new developments. Looking especially at recent proposals such as The Reserve at Blue Hill and Chapel Hill Crossings, what criteria should developers meet in order to gain approval?
For too long, Chapel Hill waited to see the kind of projects developers would bring, and Council approved those projects on a case-by-case basis, relying on often contradictory guidance from our comprehensive plan.
We’ve been working on a new, holistic, predictable way of doing business with our Complete Community framework. The town sets a clear vision for how we want to develop, relying on economic and market data to create reasonable expectations for projects that will help us add housing and create diverse, vibrant community nodes. We’re using specific new criteria – is there good greenway access and sufficient park space nearby, are important natural spaces being protected, are we meeting goals for commercial space, are we getting affordable housing and diversity of housing types. And we’re evaluating projects on how they fit with their area, not just into a particular site.
Even as we were developing this framework, I saw a difference in the way Council was reviewing projects. Proposals that brought only large parking decks wrapped with apartments, and no community-building or transportation connections, got the thumbs-down. We started seeing more middle housing units like townhomes, new attention to greenways and multimodal connections, and more smaller units that can help prices stay within reach of our families. Given guidance and reasonable expectations, developers have shown they are willing to work with us to bring us the projects we want.
Part of doing business in a better way will happen in the upcoming land-use ordinance rewrite. The goal is to move away from case-by-case negotiated approval to a stronger administrative system. We need to have policy discussions about the standards we want to set (good stream buffer and canopy protections, sensible parking standards, provisions for adequate recreation space, improved building efficiency, etc.) and then write them into ordinance and let staff implement them administratively. Developers have repeatedly told us that the most important thing for them is predictability – achievable standards, enforced for everyone. Once we get this system in place, our goals will be clear, development review will be faster and less political, we’ll still be able to negotiate for benefits like affordable housing, and we’ll make it easier to build the community we envision.
8) How should the Greene Tract be developed? Should affordable housing be built on part of it? How much should preservation be balanced with development?
The Rogers Road community for years bore the burden of the town’s landfill next to their homes. One of the achievements of Mayor Hemminger’s early tenure was to get the town to act on their commitment to provide water and sewer service to the residents. A second part of that commitment was to use the Greene Tract in a way that would redress in part the damage done by the landfill and benefit the Black families who have lived on and with this land for generations.
The 2016 Mapping Our Community’s Future report, developed with the Rogers Road community and local organizing groups like the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, set out a clear vision for the Greene Tract’s future. It calls for a “community first” planning model that puts residents front and center in decision-making and vision-building, and for implementing the four goals of the Mapping Our Community’s Future plan: retaining long-term residents, connecting Rogers Road with the rest of town, preserving diversity, and respecting the natural environment.
As the three jurisdictions (Orange County, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill) move forward to address environmental justice issues in the area and plan development that meets the community’s interests, we need to make sure that the work is centered in the community, focused on their needs, and responsive to their vision for the land. The recently approved St. Paul Village proposal, located near the Greene Tract, provides a wonderful model for this type of community-focused process and outcome.
In terms of balancing preservation with development: Of the original Greene Tract, 60 of the 167 acres have already been placed into conservation. An additional 22 acres in the jointly owned land is also slated for preservation, leaving approximately 85 acres for development. An environmental assessment has been done on the property, identifying sensitive wetlands, stream buffers, and historic homesites and tree stands. My hope is that the development plans will respect these areas, then build a walkable, inclusive community, much like St. Paul Village, on the 80+ acres that remain. My other hope is that everyone will respect the intentions of the 2016 report and the primacy of the community’s position and not let other political interests subvert the process or prevent justice from being done.
9) How can the town improve its community engagement process to make sure that residents, especially those who do not have the time or resources to attend town council meetings on weekday nights, have their voices heard?
As a Council member, I understand clearly that the input we get, especially from the slice of the community that is able and willing to attend meetings, is only a part of the story. I don’t use this input—or the calls, emails, and social media chatter — to count votes for or against a certain issue, but to learn why people support the options they do, so I can understand all the issues, balance interests, and make a good decision for the town as a whole.
That said, we’re always working to make sure to do a better job of hearing from all the different voices in Chapel Hill. With the help of our new DEI office, Community Connections staff, and community partners, we’re doing a better job of reaching out to people who might not traditionally get involved, who might feel unwelcome or not know how to or be able to access their government. We’re offering translation services and varying our communication methods (mail, in-person, text, social media) to reach people the way they prefer. Initiatives like the People’s Academy show residents how government works and encourage them to get involved; the Building Integrated Communities program creates relationships with our immigrant and refugee communities to support their involvement in local government. And in 2023, we completed a gaps analysis and engagement study, which showed us who we’re under-engaging, what the barriers are, and gave sixteen steps for us to follow to make sure our government is transparent, responsive, and inclusive of all voices in the community.
Finally, one of the most important ways people can make their voices heard is for those eligible to vote in November’s election to come out and choose their representatives on Council.
10) How can the town leverage its relationship with the university to achieve its goals? Should the town be trying harder to keep young talent in the area?
Relationships between the town and university have seen a new spirit of cooperation in the last few years. We engaged in a joint housing study in 2021, and hope to bring UNC to the table to partner in addressing our housing needs for the people who study and work at the university and medical center. We’re building on the successes of the joint Northside Neighborhood Initiative, which is bringing Black homeowners back to Northside. And we’re working together on a pilot project that will plan redevelopment of university and private land in Midway.
In terms of keeping young talent in the area, a strong town makes a place for all ages. It’s great when that young talent wants to stay local – or when twentysomethings from somewhere else want to start their work lives here.
The town has been working on several initiatives, like our Downtown Together partnership with UNC, to make Chapel Hill an innovation hub in the region, which will help drive job growth and good early career opportunities. The folks at Durham Tech are doing important work providing career-centered, affordable education to prepare young people for good-paying jobs in a 21st-century job market. Economic growth will benefit from both these efforts — a strong pool of well-educated young workers itself will help draw new businesses to Chapel Hill, which in turns means more good jobs. Maintaining young talent here is important for our town government as well. The town provides opportunities for internships in our various departments, and more and more of those talented individuals are staying to work for the town once they’ve graduated.
But jobs aren’t enough. We also have to continue our efforts to increase housing affordability and inventory, so new graduates can afford to stay in Chapel Hill. And we need to continue to focus on placemaking, especially downtown, to make Franklin Street a hub of activity all year round as another incentive to “stay local.”
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