Name as it appears on the ballot: Renuka Soll
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: RenukaSoll.com
Occupation & employer: Tutor, New Hope Elementary School
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 18
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
When I moved to Chapel Hill, I fell in love with it. I want to live here forever and care about its future.
Lately, I feel like the Town is moving in the wrong direction, a direction towards extreme urban density instead of thoughtfully growing as a modern college town. I listened to others who feel similarly and decided to run.
I want to help Chapel Hill grow into a balanced, modern town that meets our people’s needs and retains what makes it special. This means: (1) increasing affordable housing; (2) growing our parks/greenways; (3) committing to environmental leadership; (4) supporting local businesses; (5) listening to residents.
Housing in Chapel Hill is expensive. We want our teachers, nurses, and employees to live here. We need to help our students find housing. This means applying proven, evidence-based approaches. Evidence shows that eliminating single-family zoning will likely make housing less affordable. Adding more high-rise luxury apartments doesn’t meet our needs. We need better policy.
All around us, communities are investing in parks. We are not. We have not built a new park in fifteen years and added few greenways. We aren’t keeping up with repairs. So, our residents drive elsewhere to recreate. This is an equity issue and out of step with our environmental goals. We must change.
We have a Climate Action Plan. Let’s implement it. Let’s start by enforcing our tree protection ordinance and prevent clear cutting.
Our downtown should welcome the local restaurants and shops that make us special, not replace them. Our leaders should listen and respond with honesty and transparency.
I am a tutor. I have fourteen years of public service experience, including Treasurer of North Carolinians against Gun Violence, leader of three Gun Give Back events, and current Chair of our Parks, Recreation, and Greenways Commission.
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?
Chapel Hill’s current town council isn’t listening to its residents, and the result is that it is pushing a vision of extreme urban density that is out of sync with current and future residents’ needs. One of the reasons I chose to run was to restore listening to the council.
Some examples of the current council not listening include:
- Eliminating many of the citizen advisory boards from the development review process
- Ignoring petitions, even those signed by over 1,000 citizens (e.g., Legion Property Petition)
- Being disparaging of residents’ input when it doesn’t align with their vision. Many residents have presented their views at town halls and left feeling frustrated and disrespected
I want to encourage open, frequent two-way discussions with our residents. While Council decisions often involve difficult trade-offs, and Council cannot deliver all things to all people, it can consider all needs and provide honest and transparent reasoning for its decisions. This is something I want to bring.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
Priority 1: Become environmental leaders with efforts to:
- Protect our tree canopy through a stronger tree ordinance and a greater emphasis on green space requirements for all new developments.
- Invest in infrastructure to help get people out of their cars, such as adding safe bike lanes, building greenways to connect neighborhoods, extending Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along our transportation corridors, investing in bike and ebike sharing program.
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by installing solar panels, rain gardens, green rooftop, LED lights, using daylighting, and using energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.
We have a lot of these good ideas codified in our Climate Action Plan. I would like to focus on implementing it.
Priority 2: Prioritize parks and greenspace for mental and physical health, to assist with our environmental goals, and most importantly, for equity:
- Parks need to be a top priority and is considered to be a necessary public good. Our current Council has treated them as an afterthought, and until 2023, significantly underfunded them. The result is that our residents are leaving Chapel Hill to recreate. This is an equity issue. It is also putting people back in cars. I find both unacceptable.
- As part of the town’s Parks Commission for the past 5 years, I have deep knowledge of our parks’ needs and priorities. This past year, the Commission had some success advocating for the town to address our most urgent needs: returfing the Cedar Falls fields (which had long lived past their expected use), getting partial funding to rebuild our dilapidated skate park, and providing some inclusive playground equipment to help our disabled children play safely with others. I’m proud of this advocacy work, but we have so many additional worthy projects to address – over seventy of them.
- We cannot address all of our projects at once, thus, I would focus on those which our voluntary citizen Commission has prioritized based on dozens of meetings listening to residents: creation of a new park on the Legion property, building critical greenways connectors to connect our town, a splashpad, pickleball courts, and renovating our tennis courts. Longer term, I would like to focus on more fields, more new courts, and other items outlined in our 2013 Parks Master Plan that have not been addressed.
Priority 3: Adopt sensible town planning that positions Chapel Hill to grow as a modern college town
- We need more affordable housing, for the people who work here, for young families, for those living on fixed incomes, and for students. Thus, we need to focus on providing housing stock that meets the needs of those populations; their needs are not being met with the many luxury, high-rise apartments units currently being built and in the pipeline for development.
- This means using a variety of evidence-based approaches to provide a mix of housing stock. Two examples include:
- To help students and UNC staff, we need to partner and involve UNC in creative and thoughtful solutions. UNC owns 30% of the land in our town and employs 40% of our workers. We can work together to better meet these needs.
- We need to conserve our stock of older moderately-priced family homes. Evidence suggests that eliminating single family zoning is likely to accelerate the removal of our moderately priced homes and replace them with pricey rentals. [Note that many of our more expensive homes have protective covenants exempting them from the recent zoning change.] This is why I would restore single family zoning to many neighborhoods. We need affordable homes for families.
- We also need to invest in the services that have made Chapel Hill consistently one of the country’s most desirable places to live. This means proactively preserving greenspace so we can build new parks and greenways alongside our growth, planning traffic flows before major developments to prevent us from being gridlocked at certain times of day, managing stormwater to keep us safe, and building greenways to connect us.
- Finally, we need to encourage planning to supports local, family-owned business. We should not be permitting the development of generic office high-rises that force out local businesses and erodes the character that makes Chapel Hill unique.
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.
A town council can define the zoning laws that shape the character, livability, and affordability of a town. This is a power we should use thoughtfully to shape Chapel Hill into a modern town where growth is accompanied by character and services.
The town can define some criteria guiding any new development. Let’s consider an example where a developer wants to upzone, i.e., build more stories that the property is zoned for. This is something we have been seeing a lot of in Chapel Hill recently. When this occurs, we have the choice of either saying, no, it is not in character with the neighborhood or negotiate with developers to ensure the new development is in keeping with our town goals. For example, we can request developers add more affordable housing units, modify their plans to lessen their carbon footprint, and/or contribute to our parks and greenways funds. We need to be doing more of this. Related, we should have a tree board staff to help us better save our tree canopy. Enforcing our existing tree protection ordinance will help keep our town green as we continue to grow.
I have served for five years on the Parks, Recreation, and Greenways commission, which I currently Chair. From this service, and by attending countless town council meetings, I have learned how our town government works. As Parks Chair, I helped prioritize eight parks and greenways projects from a list of 70 and advocated tirelessly for their funding. With federal money from the American Rescue Act (ARPA), I am happy to report that several of them are now funded. As a resident, I have written several petitions advocating for different town needs, including a gun buy-back program. State law essentially prohibits local governments from assisting with gun buy backs, so I partnered with a nonprofit. We held three of them. I find ways to overcome obstacles and I am relentless on getting important acts done. I have also served as a Board member and Treasurer of North Carolinians against Gun Violence and am used to understanding and managing budgets.
I am a Mom’s Demand Gun Sense candidate. I have been endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety, and Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
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 fully support the affordable housing plan that was adopted by Council a few weeks ago. It has some good ideas, and I hope that it will be funded.
But the town cannot provide affordable to meet our needs on our own. We must work with others to help. This means:
- Working with UNC to find better student housing strategies and better housing for UNC employees. Students occupy about 4,000 housing units in Chapel Hill, about 30% of the Town’s rental housing. Around 600 students are on a waitlist for student housing. We need to work with UNC and the entire UNC system to help solve this student housing challenge.
- Better conserving our stock of older moderately-priced homes and not let affordable units get redeveloped into expensive duplexes apartment buildings. This is what happened in the Blue Hill district and what is likely to happen in the neighborhoods that are no longer zoned to be single family.
- Consider increasing affordable housing allotments in the downtown area to 15% of new residential units being built, similar to the allotment in many other parts of Chapel Hill.
Importantly, we need to better align our housing stock with our needs with evidence-based strategies that will work in university settings. We don’t need to help developers turn single family neighborhoods into high density, expensive rentals. I want to focus on our community, our people’s needs, and this is why I am not accepting any campaign contributions from developers.
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?
Our current Council just implemented one of the largest tax increases ever. Our residents will see this in April. While our debt rating is strong, we still have substantial debt, and thus are limited in our borrowing capacity. Thus, our first priority has to be to ensure that we are as fiscally responsible as possible. I want to scrutinize our budget and streamline questionable spending. This includes eliminating the millions our town spends on consultants, on plans that collect dust, and ensuring developers pay for what they should pay for (e.g., an access road for the Hartley apartments). Second, building a larger commercial base will help alleviate the tax burden from residents.
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?
Before approval, we need to look at potential stormwater issues, how much affordable housing would be provided, how much green space would be provided, what community benefits would be get, will the property be connected to other parts of town, potential of traffic an how to solve that issue, how much parking would be provided, will there be environmental considerations to lower the carbon footprint (solar panels, rooftop gardens, etc), and what is the design of the building. The environmental impact shouldn’t be a net loss.
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?
Part of the Greene Tract will be developed, a decision which I support so long as the development is consistent with the desires and needs of the Rogers Community. My understanding is that this community’s preference is for more affordable housing; I fully support that type of development.
I would like to balance this development with a large portion of greenspace preserved. The Greene Tract is one of the few large greenspaces left in our community. To achieve our Climate Action goals, we must start intentionally conserving the greenspace and tree canopy we have left. As environmental leaders, we need to look for ways to protect sensitive species, some of which live in this area.
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 mentioned earlier, one of the key reasons I am running is that our current leadership is not listening to the needs of its people. Thus, it is promoting a vision that is out of sync with our needs. Better and more listening is a core part of my vision for a better Chapel Hill.
Some ways I hope to achieve this:
- Build and deliver an app to give residents a place to send in real time feedback, conduct surveys on ideas, and just generally engage.
- Build a culture of listening, which includes a process for incorporating citizen feedback into key decision-making (i.e., no decision should be made without a perspective on the question of “what do our people think about this item”)
- Walking the streets. Leaders should meet with people in their neighborhoods, their parks and ask them how things are going.
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?
We also need to find better housing solutions for our UNC students and employees, who make up about 50,000 people. This means working together with UNC and with our sister towns who are home to other UNC campuses, like Asheville, Boone, and Wilmington to work towards solutions at the state level. Students occupy about 4,000 housing units in Chapel Hill, which is about 30% of the Town’s rental housing. Additionally, 600 incoming students were put on a housing waitlist by UNC, and UNC plans to expand its enrollment. This is putting even more housing pressure on Chapel Hill. By working together with UNC, we can help take care of both the students’ need, as well as the Town’s affordable housing needs.
The town should be trying to keep young talent in the area. Already we have Launch Chapel Hill which is a start-up accelerator. After finishing the program, the town could help people establish their businesses in Chapel Hill.
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