Name as it appears on the ballot: Melissa McCullough
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: https://melissaforchapelhill.com/
Occupation & employer: Environmental Scientist, retired from US Environmental Protection Agency
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 12 (previous 20 years in the County)
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
I’m an applied ecologist. My last 20 years at the US EPA were spent on sustainable communities, which: 1) are resilient to climate change while minimizing climate pollution; 2) center people, not cars, while growing the local economy; 3) have cost-attainable housing with car-free accessibility to daily needs; and 4) have a high quality of life for everyone, including easy access to nature.
That’s what I want for Chapel Hill, and it’s why I want to bring my expertise to the Town Council.
For decades, Chapel Hill said “no” to in-town development, so instead we got sprawl. Now, 40,000 people commute in daily because housing is out of reach.
Population and climate pressures are already here and play out in three main, interconnected challenges—housing, transportation, and environmental quality.
We need more housing choices—especially for young people, empty nesters, and the artists who make Chapel Hill interesting—with dense residential development on transit corridors, so people can hop a bus to UNC.
Then we need to intersperse housing with options for getting around without cars—reliable transit for our heaviest commuting routes, and safe greenways and paths for walking, biking, and rolling.
Finally, I want to expand urban green space—from street trees, to parks, to green stormwater infrastructure.
For effectiveness, there is no substitute for knowledge and experience. You need to understand the real root causes of our problems, our legal constraints, and how to strategically target actions that will ultimately address several needs at once.
I have two decades of experience in sustainable communities at the EPA, 7 years on the Town’s Planning Commission, and many as a Sierra Club leader and climate activist. I’ve spent my life putting these ideas into practice, and that’s what I want to do on the Town Council.
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 want the Council to better educate people on the pragmatic and legal considerations around decisions, because these complicated issues are easy to misunderstand. For example, when I was on the Planning Commission, the public would sometimes get very angry if we approved some things that, because they met all the requirements, we were legally required to approve. On the flip side, there are many things that the Town cannot legally do because of the General Assembly’s severe restrictions on local governments’ capabilities. I believe that being more active in educating the public on what we can and cannot do as a Town will improve our collective understanding of local civics and, when needed, direct badly-needed public attention and pressure onto the General Assembly, which has kneecapped progressive policy in Chapel Hill for years.
In this vein, I would also like to see the Council use more creativity in working around these legal restrictions, like voluntary programs, competitions, and social marketing. This was an approach at EPA that could be very effective in achieving change despite various external constraints.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
In my view, the three most pressing issues we face are housing, transportation, and environmental quality. They are, of course, interconnected, but I’ve separated them here for clarity.
On housing. In Chapel Hill, limited housing supply and high demand have created two main levels of housing stock: the top rung—large and expensive, and getting more so all the time—and the bottom rung—subsidized affordable housing and NOAH (or Naturally-Occurring Affordable Housing), which is critically important but ultimately serves a relatively small proportion of the community. Part of the reason our housing supply is so limited, leading us into this dichotomy, is our historic emphasis on single-family-only development, which is, itself, a remnant of the racially exclusionary practice of housing discrimination. Single-family-only development uses the majority of land in Chapel Hill, it doesn’t generate proportional tax revenue, and it makes our limited available land very expensive. In turn, all housing gets more expensive; it gets harder to meet the growing need for subsidized housing, as well as to find (much less afford) that missing middle housing, between subsidized and very expensive.
As a town, we do well for our size on subsidized housing, and the Council just adopted a great plan to do more, but we aren’t anywhere near meeting the need. The NOAH is often the generational homes of Black families—who built UNC and the Town but who are now being priced out—or old apartment buildings that owners want to redevelop, resulting in probable displacement. I support building subsidized units on Town-owned land, as proposed on the Legion Road property, which will have the amenity of an adjacent park. But, given the unmet needs, we need to be creative and look for strategies that have worked for other communities, such as public-private partnerships, micro-unit buildings, or a program like in Montgomery County, MD, where the housing commission acted as a benevolent investor to enable more affordable units in a market rate building. Again, this is why having experience in local government and planning is so important: this issue isn’t easy, and we need to be both creative and strategic in addressing it.
As we employ these strategies, we also need to work on increasing supply to ease pressures on housing prices across the board. Facilitating creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), modest multiplexes, and other missing middle housing will help address not only overall supply and cost, but also help fill the gap in housing choices between expensive single family and apartment complexes: we need more missing middle housing choices. Given that a third of our population is over 65, if we don’t make spaces for younger residents or folks that don’t want or can’t afford a large house, we risk becoming a very expensive retirement village.
I want to build a housing supply large enough to lessen price pressures and diverse enough to serve our workforce, young people starting families, empty nesters aging in place, and the artists and musicians who make Chapel Hill interesting. The Town’s decision to allow duplexes Town-wide is a start for the gentle densification of the large fraction of low-density Chapel Hill, but I would like to return us to the historic neighborhoods of diverse housing types that served people through various stages of life. In keeping with this history, I see no reason why Chapel Hill’s use allowances cannot be increased up to four-plexes, which are a feature in historic, attractive neighborhoods across the country (like the ones my grandfather built in Lexington, KY between the 1920s and 1960s). With a Pattern Book of pleasing exteriors and family-friendly interiors (rather than ones more attractive to students), they could be permitted quickly, and we could avoid the biggest fear of the multiplex haters, “stealth dorms.”
On Transportation. I was the EPA reviewer in the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chapter on Human Settlements, Land Use and Infrastructure, which stated that we will not meet our climate goals unless and until we address the Vehicle Miles Traveled resulting from sprawl-patterned land use. The IPCC explained that communities need intersecting policies for densifying land use and expanding transportation options. So after the housing changes noted above, we need to get as many people out of their cars as possible. (Electric cars are not the answer, as their lifetime carbon footprint is still about half of a regular car, and a new study shows how the majority of ocean microplastics is from tire wear. Our best use of electric transportation is for mass transit and micromobility.)
We have a good transit system for our size, and the planned North-South Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will have great ridership along a major housing corridor, also serving two park-and-ride lots. We desperately need to develop BRT for the Durham-Chapel Hill corridor too: such a big commuting corridor that it earned US DOT selection for a light rail (before Duke and the General Assembly killed it). We need to cooperate regionally with other communities to expand our regional connections for commuters, to try to get more of our 40,000 daily commuters out of their single-occupancy cars. The revenue generated by strategically building more densely can help pay for an expanded transit system.
Finally, we need to expand active transportation options. The Town’s excellent Everywhere to Everywhere Greenways plan will provide options not only for recreational use, but also for getting around and meeting daily needs. Paris’s explosion of bike lanes and cyclists shows that “if you build it they will come”: we need to build it. Having routes allowing for active transportation to school will serve our youth and families well, and, in addition, studies show that bike and walking traffic brings more people (and spending) to local businesses.
On the Environment. Climate is an existential crisis, and I’ve outlined above how we can cut emissions by making it easier for people to leave their cars behind. Also, I’ve noted how stopping the sprawl expansion of Chapel Hill will help to preserve our remaining green space, especially the rural buffer and our greenways.
Other environmental actions I want to take involve expanding our use of trees and green stormwater infrastructure. We need to use street trees to mitigate the urban heat island effect, make walking on sidewalks comfortable, and lessen the demand for air conditioning by shading buildings and streets. I want to use dispersed rain gardens to try and correct the stormwater issues caused by the development that occurred before we had stormwater regulations. Finally, I want to use our green spaces, parks, greenways, and stormwater basins for native plants so that we can foster a healthy environment for pollinators and birds.
We need to keep environmental justice in mind as we do all these things. Disadvantaged populations should not be allowed to be disproportionately impacted by climate or other environmental problems, they should not bear inequitable responsibility for corrective actions, and they should receive enough access to healthful Town amenities (like street trees and parks) to make up for historic racial inequities and exclusion. As I hope you can tell from my response to this question, I believe that housing, transportation, and environment are all equity issues: the way I see it, when we improve our housing and transportation systems and do more to protect the environment, we will be building a more just, equitable Chapel Hill for everybody.
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 served 7 years on the Planning Commission, so I’m very aware of the limitations of local government power under Dillon Rule. This is why the Planning Commission is the most effective training ground for Town Council: because we worked on the same projects, plans, and rules as Council, we were constantly bumping up against the same constraints, too.
Being at the EPA during Republican administrations gave me some insights into working around restrictive governance to deliver wins for the people. I think that we need to examine those legal limits and ask our lawyers to explore where we might stretch authority or utilize loopholes for desired actions.
But another thing I would like us to try to do is some social marketing with technical assistance for voluntary programs. Voluntary programs were very effective at EPA, because there are many people who would like to do the right thing, if we make it easier. For example, stormwater is a big problem, due to all the development that happened before we had stormwater regulations. I would like to create a program to enlist neighborhoods, with recognition and perhaps a competition, to install distributed rain gardens to address stormwater as close to where it falls as possible, mitigating our chronic flooding issues. Another idea is to start a recognition program alongside Carrboro to encourage landlords to weatherize their properties for energy savings (not something they would normally do, since they do not pay the utility bill).
I am proud to have received endorsements so far from Equality NC, the Sunrise Movement of Durham, the AFL-CIO, the NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro Action Fund, and the Anderson-Thorpe-Battle Breakfast Club. I also have been personally endorsed by many people I greatly respect, including State Senator Graig Meyer, environmental attorney Kym Meyer, County Commissioner Sally Greene, five sitting members of Chapel Hill’s Town Council (Karen Stegman, Michael Parker, Paris Miller-Foushee, Camille Berry and Tai Huynh), and Carrboro’s Mayor Damon Seils and Council Member Eliazar Posada.
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 very much support the plan and strategy! It was based on a solid foundation of fact, community engagement, racial equity, and a desire to use all the tools at our disposal. Housing is a complicated, esoteric issue, and having expert guidance, through a well-researched and tailored plan, gives us a map to success!
For actions I would take, please see my ideas in Question 3, on Housing, which are in line with the plan. In addition, we need to recognize the way that other Town policies can affect affordability. For example, being able to get around without a car saves around $10,000 per year that can go to rent or mortgages, so the more we can expand our car-free options, the more we can make Chapel Hill an affordable place to live.
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 has only raised taxes in five of the last 14 years, for a cumulative tax rate increase of less than 1% each year; meanwhile, the Town amassed a $60 million backlog of needs. Because of the hike, Town employees got well-deserved raises, and we were able to hire some new staff, like three new firefighters. The Council also appropriated $100,000 to help lower-income residents pay their tax bills to ensure that the tax increase didn’t have unintended, inequitable impacts. Plus, a penny of next year’s tax rate increase will raise $911,000 for parks.
This is not to say that we don’t need to try to avoid steep tax increases on residents where we can. But we need to be realistic about the tax revenue generated by property in Chapel Hill compared to its cost in services. As an example, if you look at Urban3’s evaluations of Asheville’s urban tax value by the acre, you will see that a WalMart brought them $6500/acre in taxes, a single family home brought $19,500/acre, and a 6-story mixed-use building downtown brought $624,000/acre. (Walmart’s sales tax didn’t make up for its low per-acre tax revenue.) Therefore, we need to have more Town acreage in high-value uses that will yield a higher return per acre in order to lessen pressure on the average homeowner. We can do some of that by redeveloping less tax-productive (and less attractive) land uses, like strip malls, and replacing them with these high value uses that will also create more jobs. In addition to larger tax value, adding density where infrastructure already exists makes the infrastructure less costly for the Town to operate and maintain compared to sparsely-developed sprawling infrastructure. Being smarter about our land use will generate more tax revenue that we can spend on things we want and need, and it will also reduce some of the tax burden on individual homeowners throughout Chapel Hill.
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?
A lot of Chapel Hill’s housing costs and traffic problems are due to the ways that Chapel Hill has, for decades, made the development process so onerous by project-by-project nitpicking. As a result, we have driven out many small local developers, since it costs upwards of a million dollars just to go through the development review process, and smaller developers simply can’t afford to spend that amount of money on a project they can’t be sure will be approved. The high cost of our development review process also means that developers can’t set aside as many affordable units or build as many community amenities. In other words, our onerous process has resulted in worse development, not better. Luckily, now we have a Complete Communities Framework, which was developed by an internationally-acclaimed expert and is intended to help us to create a roadmap for where and how to grow. I fully support Complete Communities, and I look forward to integrating it into our Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO).
Given our non-Home Rule status as a state, the General Assembly does not give us permission to regulate a lot of what we would like to. However, we can incentivize the sorts of development that we want and need. I’d like to see us incentivize things like food stores in food deserts, missing middle housing, and development that places its required tree canopy such that the passing public can use it. Quicker permitting and density/height bonuses are two examples of tools we can use to get the sorts of development we want.
Because we need more shade and pollinator habitat everywhere, I also want all developments to preserve as much of the existing tree canopy as possible, since the ecological benefits of trees take time to accumulate. In disturbed sites, I want native species, especially shade trees, to be planted back, with adequate root protection and care, so they will grow to shade size as quickly as possible.
Finally, I want green stormwater infrastructure put in place so that rain can be caught and treated as close to where it falls as possible. Where we really encounter problems is when rainwater is shunted off-site as quickly as possible: it causes flooding when infrastructure is overwhelmed, and it joins with other communities’ shunted rainwater to magnify flooding downstream. I’d also like, wherever feasible, stormwater infrastructure to be designed as usable public greenspace, like our Booker Creek Basin Park or Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park. I would really like to daylight Booker Creek where it runs under the Eastgate parking lot, and make the Basin Park run from where Booker Creek comes under 15-501 to Elliot Rd, creating a green center to the concrete-heavy Blue Hill District.
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?
First, it’s important to recognize that the Greene Tract was purchased as additional landfill space, to expand the landfill already impacting the historic Black community on Rogers Road. In exchange for being impacted by that landfill, the community was promised Town services, which were completed only in 2020. The Historic Rogers Road Community is the very picture of environmental racism, and Chapel Hill owes them substantial reparative action.
In 2015, Orange County and the Towns of Chapel Hill & Carrboro requested that the Jackson Center and RENA (Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association) partner to facilitate a proactive community planning effort in the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood, which resulted in a document called “Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community’s Future.” Through a “community-first” organizing model, partners settled on goals and recommendations for future development on the site. Among those are retaining generational residents and minimizing disruption to the natural landscape, with gentle density housing and small businesses. This is what that community wants, and it is poetic justice that the land purchased to impose more environmental racism onto a Black community can now be used to empower and lift up that community. We can also ensure that the rare amphibian which calls that land home enjoys a safe habitat.
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?
Equity starts with transparency and engagement. The Town’s engagement study showed that BIPOC, low income, and renter residents are not only underengaged because of the barriers mentioned in the question, but they also feel unheard when they do engage. I support the recommendations detailed in the engagement study, and I believe we need to implement those promptly. The recommendations include: intentionally focusing efforts on those heard the least, mindfully addressing barriers to engagement by understanding the target audience (e.g. language, meeting times, need for childcare), and, finally, following up! Why would people take time and energy to participate if they don’t trust it makes a difference?
In addition to Town policies and official engagement, I think Council Members should be reaching out personally to underheard communities. One gets real input during informal conversations with community members. I have participated in many activities with the RENA, like bike rodeos and discussions on the Greene Tract, as well as attending events at the Hargraves Center, like the Good Neighbor Initiative Community Cookout and the Back-to-School Family Night. At events like these, you get the most meaningful discussions about the issues that communities face, and you build meaningful, authentic connections across Chapel Hill. Going to these things is common behavior for people running for office, but it needs to continue after people are elected. All parts of the community deserve to see us, know us, and trust that we’re listening.
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?
Unfortunately, the Town would be able to work with the University more productively if the General Assembly-appointed Board of Trustees cared more about higher education and Chapel Hill. But one must work with the hand one is dealt. As such, we need to work toward common, overlapping, and complementary goals so that we can foster more productive collaboration.
Right now, a third of our population is 65 or older, so I fervently believe that we need to do our best to retain young talent in Chapel Hill, or we will just be an expensive, exclusive retirement village. We will accomplish that retention by making it an affordable, vibrant, livable, creative place, because, with remote work and lifestyle priorities among the young, we must attract them if we want them to live here. That has to start with attainable housing, such as the missing middle housing types discussed above, which can serve as starter homes that allow young folks to put down roots. As we make our transit-oriented-developments and our downtown more walkable, with interesting storefronts, sidewalk restaurant seating, and fun activities, we will have a more lively and attractive place where the young will want to settle, start families, and invest their lives. We often say that young people are the future, but if we don’t find ways to include them in Chapel Hill (in other words, making Chapel Hill a place they can afford), they won’t be our future. I want to build a multigenerational, vibrant Chapel Hill that’s open to people of all kinds: that’s what will make Chapel Hill continue to be special decades into the future.
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