Chapel Hill Town Council/Mayor
Name as it appears on the ballot: Elizabeth Sharp
Party affiliation: Unaffiliated
Campaign website: elizabethsharp.org
Occupation & employer: Restaurant Owner
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 7
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
I’m running for Town Council because I believe we can grow and adapt to changing times without sacrificing the identity of our town. When implementing solutions to the challenges that come with being a modern college town we need to be clear-eyed about economic realities, honest about our goals, and creative in our approach. As a local, brick and mortar small business owner I am completely invested in the future of Chapel Hill. We have to recognize what assets draw both residents and businesses to our town – a strong sense of place, green spaces – and be careful not to dilute or destroy them as we make choices for how to grow. There are places all around the world where cities are scrambling to mitigate the negative impact of the destruction of historic buildings and green spaces. In Chapel Hill we have a chance to preserve them while we still have them.
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 think the current council could do better at listening, without pre-judgement, to the residents of Chapel Hill and to those who don’t share the Council’s majority opinion. I see a calcification of will and ideology among our current elected representatives that does not take into account needs and concerns that our council may not have considered or that contradict their proposed course of action. ALL the needs of our residents should be considered in making choices for the future of our town, and when those needs conflict, we can’t just claim that the ones that complicate things are invalid.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
- The trajectory of current development has Chapel Hill on course to become a generic town of bland office buildings and unremarkable, unattractive, expensive apartment buildings. We need to push back harder on developers to give us new spaces that are attractive to independent businesses, conducive to a dynamic lifestyle, environmentally sensitive, and respectful of the character of our town.
- Like many places in the United States with strong economies, Chapel Hill is getting expensive. I would like us to bring the University to the table as part of the solution for their thousands of students, faculty and staff. I would also like to see us get creative about how we implement affordability, by giving streamlined access and support to our affordable housing non-profits and by investigating supplying housing incentives to workforce populations like teachers, nurses, and public servants like firemen.
- We have some of the highest property taxes in the region – including other college towns – and yet our public services and amenities like our police and fire departments and parks are desperately underfunded. We have to address our basic budgetary imbalances before we can fund other projects. A stable town with a flourishing economy will ultimately be able to better support public interest projects than a town that is neglecting its most basic needs. That is a very shortsighted way to plan our fiscal future.
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.
I have spent years in development, marketing, and as a restaurant owner distilling complicated problems to their essential roots and then implementing creative solutions to them. I am good at thinking flexibly and not being constrained by old patterns. I also have a demonstrated ability to synthesize opposing viewpoints and bring opposing parties together to problem-solve without acrimony. Our tendency to dig in on one side of an issue or another will not help us in Chapel Hill, a largely left-leaning town, make headway with our right-wing legislature. I am good at, and recognize the extreme need for, getting those who have felt embattled in one way or another let down their guard and get to productive work. I also believe strongly in finding creative workarounds when the obvious solutions to a problem are prohibited at the state level.
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 do support the recent affordable housing plan, but I worry about our ability to fund it, given the limited capacity we have to take on additional debt in the next five years. Please see my response to question 3, number 2 for my thoughts on affordable housing solutions.
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?
The town should, and will, finance future projects in the same ways it always has – through tax income, grant money, and bonds. Yes, of course we should try to strengthen our commercial tax base, but not at the expense of the character of our town. The two things are not mutually exclusive – maintaining our town identity and growing our commercial tax base – but currently the latter is being pursued at the expense of the former. Because our ability to attract the businesses and their employees who will bolster our tax base depends on offering a dynamic, equitable lifestyle, we have to prioritize the things that help create that kind of lifestyle – public amenities, arts and culture, attractive living spaces, outdoor experiences, and a strong local business community. If all we do is build office space – for which there is declining demand – the lifestyle picture in our town will be deeply unbalanced.
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?
New development needs to:
- Fit into the context of our town
- Incorporate affordability
- Not displace current residents without adequate measures to house them
- Meet environmental criteria, like energy consumption and stormwater management
- Incorporate green space
- Provide us with something better than the space it is replacing – if the new isn’t better than the old, what’s the point?
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?
Preservation should always be balanced with development. While it would make sense for the Greene Tract to be used for some form of affordable housing, permitted all of the interested parties agree to it, it is not an appropriate spot for very dense development given the historical will of the neighbors, and the distance to a major transit corridor with efficient public transportation. Because this has been such a contentious issue, with so many stakeholders, it’s important that any land use decisions for the Greene Tract be made transparently, with ample community disclosure and engagement.
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?
We need to diversify the ways that we reach and engage with people. We should vary our meeting times, locations, and forms, and leverage technology-based engagement so that people can engage (not just watch) remotely. Representation is also incredibly important. If we don’t already have voices from affected groups in our community engaged in any given decision, we must actively reach out to that group to take their perspective and needs into account.
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?
The future of Chapel Hill is every bit as important to the University as it is to the non-University-affiliated residents. The University needs a vibrant town with ample housing to attract students and recruit faculty. As this questionnaire mentioned, the University also puts substantial strain on our housing market and makes little fiscal contribution to a solution. While the state legislature and Board of Governors have been unwilling to work towards a solution in the past, we need to leverage relationships with influential UNC alumni and donors, as well as partner with our fellow UNC system towns, to arrive at a better partnership with our biggest landowner and employer.
If we want to encourage young talent from the University to stay in Chapel Hill, we have to grow the parts of our town that provide a lifestyle that appeals to young people. Currently, the town attracts families with children because of our school system and family neighborhoods, which is wonderful. But again, if we become a town of chain restaurants and office buildings, the young talent we want to keep in Chapel Hill might work here, but they will still choose to live in places that are less family-oriented. So we either have to commit to be a mid-size family town that we have been for decades, and continue to grow towards that goal or very intentionally support the kinds of experiences that would attract a younger demographic.
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