Name as it appears on the ballot: Karen Stegman
Party affiliation: Democrat
Occupation & employer: Director of Business Development, IntraHealth International
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 50
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?
I am a Tar Heel. I was born at Memorial Hospital and have built my career in the non-profit sector in Chapel Hill. Growing up in Chapel Hill, my family taught me the importance of an equitable and just community and the role that government plays in creating it. Later I gained a deep appreciation for the Chapel Hill civil rights pioneers who changed the face of public life, education, and civic engagement, including those whose names are captured at Peace & Justice Plaza and on the Chapel Hill Nine Memorial. Ensuring a bright future for our community is even more important to me now that I am raising two children with my wife Alyson Grine, a NC Superior Court Judge. You will often find us hiking and biking, cheering on the Tar Heels, or at home fostering rescue dogs.
During my four years on the Council, I have been a clear, consistent, and reliable voice for making Chapel Hill more sustainable, equitable, and accessible to all. For example, I led the creation of an innovative criminal justice debt fund to alleviate the burden of court fees for justice-involved community members. I also worked closely with EqualityNC to pass one of the State’s first non-discrimination ordinances benefitting the LGBTQ+ community. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and growth of the BLM movement, I was a leader in the Town’s efforts to “re-imagine” community safety and immediately ban regulatory traffic stops that too often serve to criminalize poverty and chokeholds that have proven to be too high-risk as a use-of-force policy. I’m proud that we passed the Town’s first affordable housing bond and have done more to produce and secure affordable units than any previous Council. We have also worked to lead our community through the COVID-19 pandemic with far better outcomes than many of our peers around the state and nation.
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 believe Chapel Hill is largely on the right course. We have made significant progress in affordable housing, and we have created a Future Land Use Map, that if carried through into our Land Use Management Ordinance, will focus development on our transit corridors, while also permitting more gentle density through much of the Town and also help us build the missing middle. We continue to invest in transit and are working hard to develop our North South Bus Rapid Transit System. And we are making real progress in bring more and better jobs to Chapel Hill. But there is still much work to be done to accelerate progress on efforts already underway, including on affordable housing, climate action and response, economic development, community safety, and racial justice, and multi-modal transit. I share more about how I would do this in the responses that follow.
3. What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
Many of the issues facing the town are intersectional, which means taking the right actions will move us forward on multiple fronts. Land use and transit policies hold the key to progress on addressing: 1) the impacts of climate change, 2) our housing scarcity, and 3) the level of vehicle miles travelled in and around Chapel Hill, the most pressing issues facing the Town.
We should prioritize the following actions that will move us forward on all three of the above priorities:
1. Transportation is now the leading source of GHGs in the US. Currently, Chapel Hill has 42,000 people a day commuting in and 15,000 people a day commuting out. Only 7,000 people live and work in Chapel Hill. Our current transit resources, particularly our regional ones, are inadequate to meet this demand, hence the enormous number of cars coming in and out, bringing with them pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic. As such, careful thought about land use and transportation planning is key to reducing our carbon footprint. This starts with continued investment in public transit, including the Bus Rapid Transit currently under development, and continued engagement in regional transit planning. We also need to continue to work with our colleagues in the region and the state to shift NCDOT funding away from building unneeded new or larger roads and toward increased support for multi-modal transportation, including transit.
2. In the late ‘80s, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County created a rural buffer. This established a circle around the edge of town beyond which we agreed not to develop. The intent was to preserve the rural nature of Orange County while also preventing urban sprawl. This has proven to be a real success. The tradeoff inherent in the creation of the rural buffer, one which is now becoming more apparent as developable land becomes truly scarce, is that we need to use the land we do have in a way that accommodates anticipated growth while retaining community character and addressing the challenges of climate change. Chapel Hill continues to grow, albeit more slowly than our neighboring communities, with a demand for approximately 400 new dwelling units per year to accommodate this modest growth. Our housing supply has not grown sufficiently, and this inadequate supply leads to housing scarcity and increased housing prices. Because our supply has not kept up with demand, pressure on housing prices is intense. It is vital to the long-term health of the community that we reflect the implications of the rural buffer in our land use policies so that we can preserve the buffer while not pricing out the diverse population that we want and need. These decision-making processes should be guided by the following principles:
• Emphasize smart growth principles that strive to minimize human impact on the environment; in particular, encourage density according to the recently approved Future Land Use Map (FLUM)
• As the Town’s density increases, it will be critical to incorporate thoughtful, publicly accessible green spaces, preserving old growth trees and as much tree canopy as possible to minimize heat island effects and allow for shaded recreation and exercise and, overall, improve our residents’ quality of life
• Prioritize development outside of our flood zones and ensure responsible storm water planning and sufficient infrastructure as the Town continues to evolve
• Align development with current and future transit routes (transit-oriented development)
• Revising our Land Use Management Ordinance to explicitly recognize and facilitate these new development patterns
With appropriate investments and policies, the growth that is expected in Chapel Hill can be directed towards more walkable and transit-supportive communities. This approach could leverage sustainable development patterns to attract jobs, expand the local tax base, and enhance existing neighborhoods. The Rosemary Street redevelopment project is a good example of this, especially as we work to increase housing downtown for year-round residents.
3. The Town’s Mobility and Connectivity Plan has an ambitious vision for a network that reduces VMT, increases the share of commuters using non-car transportation, and supports the Town’s commitment to sustainability. The proposed network of greenways, multimodal paths, and bike lanes connects key destinations in a way that supports safe travel for people of all ages and backgrounds. Greenway expansion is also a top priority for residents. We do not have the luxury of waiting for synergistic development projects or the largess of the NCGA to provide the resources to help people meet their daily needs without getting in a car every time. This is why I am calling for the Town to propose a new bond to significantly accelerate development of this critical multimodal infrastructure.
4. What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
My years of experience in the non-profit sector have given me deep insights into local issues and the skills needed for developing innovative solutions. Early on, I learned the difference between charity and social justice. I often reflect on my “light bulb moment,” when I decided that, rather than filling the gaps caused by injustices, I would work to eliminate those injustices.
I have done this in a variety of ways throughout my career, including addressing adult literacy, working in Chapel Hill’s public housing communities, and my current role improving health care around the globe at one of the nation’s leading non-profit international health NGOs. Through this work, I have learned how to listen to individuals’ lived experiences, particularly of those who often struggle to make their voices heard, and to forge partnerships with local government and private-sector entities to work cooperatively to move us forward together to improve lives.
Additionally, I have been an active participant in the civic life of the community, with an emphasis on issues around poverty and equity. Prior to serving on the Council, I served as the Chair of the Town’s Public Housing Program Advisory Board and the Ephesus Elementary School Improvement Team, was a Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate, and a PORCH Neighborhood Coordinator. I am also the only LGBTQ member of the Town Council. So far during this election cycle, I have received endorsements from Equality NC, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro Action Fund, and the Sierra Club, and have been recognized by #VoteProChoice, a national group that identifies prochoice champion candidates in every election, and by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a million-member grassroots organization building power at the local, state, and federal levels. Of course, I would very much appreciate receiving the INDY’s endorsement once again.
5. Last year, town voters approved a $10 million affordable housing bond, and so far $5.2 million has created nearly 300 affordable units. But affordable housing remains a concern. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? Should it promote apartment living, duplexes, and/or triplexes? Encourage density in single family housing? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
The history of housing in this country is one of racial discrimination and segregation. Whether overtly, as was the case until the early 20th century, or covertly since then, via redlining, racially restrictive property deeds and covenants, and zoning laws, housing policy in American has served to restrict Black American access to homeownership and the multi-generational wealth-building that accompanies it. The legacy of these practices can still be felt in the predominant single-family zoning that continues to limit housing production, preserves wealth for existing homeowners, increases property values and unaffordability and excludes people of color.
I am looking forward to the revision of the Town’s Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) which will provide the opportunity to have community dialogue on the best approaches to address the history of exclusionary zoning that has contributed to the continued inequities in access to homeownership and wealth-building opportunities. This zoning reform should consider where we can incentivize development of more diverse housing types that maximize use of limited land such as multi-plexes (duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes), cluster cottages and stacked townhomes and, overall, providing the widest variety of housing options possible.
Additionally, because our supply has not kept up with demand, pressure on housing prices is intense. Chapel Hill continues to grow, with a demand for approximately 400 new dwelling units per year to accommodate this growth. Our housing supply has not grown sufficiently, and this inadequate supply leads to housing scarcity and increases housing prices. Expanding access to affordable housing is a key role of elected officials through advocacy, collaboration, funding, and policies that create a supportive environment.
In my role on the Council, I advocated for passage of the affordable housing bond and to use Town-owned land and resources for new affordable housing development, such as 2200 Homestead Road, Weaver’s Grove, Peach Apartments, and Perry Place. I also voted to preserve the Tar Heel manufactured housing community and have been working to identify strategies to preserve others in town. I will continue to make affordable housing a priority in my second term, supporting for example:
• Continuing to leverage Town-owned land to reduce the cost for new affordable housing construction
• Issuing a second affordable housing bond, since the funds from the initial one will soon be exhausted
• Moving ahead with the redevelopment of our Trinity Court public housing neighborhood and developing plans for improving the other Town-owned affordable housing neighborhoods
• Advocating for an expansion of our master leasing program to increase rental opportunities for those at the lowest AMIs and experiencing other barriers to securing housing
• Create a “jump the line” policy for development applications to expedite the Town’s approval process for those non-profit affordable housing developers or others who offer 30% or more of their units as affordable housing.
• Implementation of a manufactured housing community preservation strategy along with strategies for assisting those who wish to leave manufactured housing for other options.
The Council also has a key role in negotiating with developers to provide affordable units and we have been successful in getting more on-site units than ever before.
6. How should the town and county address tax revaluations that increase property taxes, especially in neighborhoods such as Northside? How should local governments address rising rents, particularly for residents of public housing? What role does the town have in ensuring its residents who live in mobile home parks remain housed in light of development pressures? Homelessness has increased by 40 percent in Orange County in 2021. How should the town and county address this issue?
These are complex and interconnected issues. Housing scarcity, the limitations on developable land imposed by the rural buffer, the fact that Chapel Hill is a desirable college town with a high quality of life and has some of the best schools in the state combine to create significant housing pressure. Additionally, during the pandemic, we have seen the cost of construction and materials increase significantly due to supply chain issues and increased demand. Single-family home prices have skyrocketed while the number of individuals experiencing homelessness has also increased dramatically. There are no easy answers to these interrelated issues but at the same time, the Town has taken an aggressive approach to mitigate their impacts and create a more sustainable community.
As discussed below, new development needs to help us address these issues by providing more and different housing types, expanding affordable housing rental and ownership opportunities and developing with a minimal footprint to allow for the preservation and/or addition of green space, shade, and tree canopy. The town must also develop and implement short, medium, and long-term strategies to address specific housing challenges to protect our most vulnerable populations. Specific examples are discussed below.
In May, Council Member Parker and I brought forward a petition calling on the Town to commit to contributing to the OC fund established to subsidize the county property tax payments for low-income property owners whose valuation had risen to unsustainable levels in the 2021 revaluation due to systemic racial inequities in the valuation process. The high value of investor-owned and -developed housing skewed results due to the way in which the county applied the state’s appraisal methodology and created artificially high and unsustainable tax values for long-time homeowners. I am hopeful this will be a short-term solution while we engage in and support community-led advocacy efforts to revise the county’s revaluation approach to take into consideration age, condition, deed restrictions and other considerations that impact home values, especially in neighborhoods close to downtown that have a mix of long-time owner-occupied and new student rentals, such as Northside and Pine Knolls.
In the specific case of Northside, the County’s assessors ignored the fact there are at least two different types of housing there – owner occupied homes, in many cases owned by long-time residents and investor-owned student housing. These have very different economic profiles which were not initially considered.
Last year, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted on a complex and difficult proposal for a new development at 1200 MLK Drive where a manufactured housing park (MHP) and a defunct gas station currently sit. The proposal, for a new gas station (which could already be built without Council approval) and a self-storage building, and also retention of the MHP, passed in a split vote. There were no easy answers as it put core Town values – preserving a vulnerable community amid a global pandemic and having land use that meets our longer-term development and environmental goals — in conflict. I voted to avoid displacement, protect the residents, preserve the MHP for 15 years, and give the Town more time to identify a more permanent strategy.
We dodged a bullet on that one, but this problem is not going away and will resurface soon due to the vulnerability of other manufactured housing communities, such as Lakeview. During the process on Tar Heel, it became clear there is lack of understanding about these neighborhoods. Chapel Hill has four manufactured housing communities, housing upward of 160 families, some of whom have lived there for 20 years or more. These parks are neighborhoods, as valuable and as worthy of protection as every other neighborhood in Chapel Hill. The residents are primarily homeowners – they are not renters – homes they have invested in, some of which aren’t even paid off yet. They have porches, patios, gardens. The residents are neighbors, grandparents, school children, business owners, workers. The kids play together after school. The families share childcare. Most of all, they are homeowners who, despite this fact, are vulnerable, because they don’t own the land under their homes.
We talk a lot in Chapel Hill about the need for neighborhood protection. The threat of displacement compels us to think about what that means and who most needs protecting by Town government. Each owned home represents an investment of at least $55k per family. The homes are not “mobile”, in that most cannot readily be moved, nor is there any place in Chapel Hill to move them. Chapel Hill does not currently allow mobile homes outside of parks. So, if the park is closed, residents will lose their investment in their homes, with no recourse for being made whole. Many families would have to continue paying off loans on homes they would no longer have. We need to – and can – do better, if the political will is there.
7. The town recently approved the Aura and University Place projects and more large economic development projects will continue to come before the council. What do you want to see from large development projects such as these? What role do developers have to connect with the Chapel Hill community and surrounding environment? What, if any, concerns do you have about traffic, scale, preservation of green space, and potential effects on the environment?
The Town is guided by multiple strategies and plans that have been created with ample public input to help us make the right decisions. These include the Future Land Use Map, the Climate Action and Response Plan, the Mobility and Connectivity Plan, and many more. Taken together, they call for a future Chapel Hill that is a sustainable, equitable, connected community. We use these plans to inform our decisions and direct us towards the best path forward. The Council recently approved two new multi-use developments that move us closer towards the vision laid out in those strategies and plans: a vision of Chapel Hill where diverse community members live in homes they can afford and work at well-paying jobs they can use public transit to reach. Residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes (the 15-minute city), including parks and green spaces where residents routinely gather and connect. Will Aura or the University Place developments achieve that vision on their own? No, but they move us in the right direction, and to the next opportunity to make another choice along the path that leads us even closer to our shared vision. Specifically, they incorporate:
• Infill development that adds needed housing without sprawl and includes diverse housing types
• Desperately needed affordable housing, including ownership and rental townhomes and apartments at 65-80% of AMI, with Aura agreeing to accept Housing Choice/Section 8 vouchers
• Proximity to schools so kids can walk or bike
• 30-40% tree canopy and many acres of recreation space including multiple parks (a decrease in impervious surface at U Place)
• Access to transit via the current bus line and future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line
• Retail space and commercial space to provide needed services and jobs while also diversifying our tax base
• High stormwater standards that include green stormwater management features such as pervious pavement and bioretention
• Roadway and traffic signal changes that intensive traffic studies conducted by the Town show will mitigate traffic issues at both ends of Estes.
It is my hope and expectation that the ongoing LUMO rewrite will allow us to incorporate more explicitly these, and other, goals into the ordinance so that we as a community get more of what we need and want without having to negotiate, not always successfully, on a case-by-case basis.
Recently, limited numbers of trees have been cut down to make room for affordable housing, senior housing, rental housing, and better access to health care. These are the tradeoffs we need to be willing to make. The Town’s policies – which are under threat from the General Assembly – require significant tree canopy preservation in new development. We owe it to the trees we do remove to make the most of the spaces where they used to be. Density allows us to limit the development footprint, preserve more trees, combat climate change, and take care of our people, too.
8. The town recently partnered with UNC on Downtown Together, to revitalize downtown and create a hub of innovation. What would you like to see come out of that partnership and what specific changes would you like to see downtown?
When the Town and UNC-CH collaborate around a common cause, we can achieve amazing things – Chapel Hill Transit is a testament to that. With Downtown Together we have an opportunity to help revitalize our Downtown and make it the center of our Town that it has been in the past. First and foremost, it is my hope that this initiative can help keep the amazing companies that are being spun out of UNC on a regular basis in Chapel Hill. All too often, we lose these companies for lack of growth space, particularly for wet labs. I also hope that this effort can help the Town create a true entrepreneurial ecosystem that has, in addition to start-ups, the companies that support these new firms: venture capitalists, attorneys, accountants, and marketing and communications firms, as well as the social structures that support the entrepreneurs.
By doing so, this will not only enhance our start up environment, but also provide the workers that can support our existing businesses downtown, which were, to some degree, struggling even before COVID and are struggling even more now.
Also, while not directly related to the innovation hub, UNC-CH has plans to build a new building at Porthole Alley to accommodate its new admissions office, among other things. UNC-CH needs to collaborate with the Town and its residents to ensure that such a building is of benefit to our community as well as to UNC-CH.
More broadly, our Downtown needs improvement and there are many things that I would like to enhance, some of which the Council has control over and others that will require collaboration with the private sector and UNC-CH. Among them are (and this is not a comprehensive list):
• Creating more housing opportunities for year-round residents to have more “feet on the street” and more customers for our downtown businesses
• Making downtown more family friendly. We need to have facilities and businesses that are kid-friendly so that parents want to come downtown and spend time there
• We need more jobs downtown (something we are actively working on). Jobs will help make downtown more vital and vibrant and support our existing retail businesses and spur the creation of new ones.
• We need more attractions for adults older that student age. Currently, the only real reason for older folks to come Downtown in the evening is for our restaurants. We need more performance venues, more galleries, and more “watering holes”, particularly in the evenings.
• We need to improve the physical appearance of downtown to make it more inviting. We need more and better maintained planters, lights in trees, cleaner streets, and better signage and wayfinding.
9. The town recently adopted a resolution to follow recommendations from the Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force, with the mission of increasing public safety, eliminating inequalities, and enabling all in the community to thrive. In actionable terms, how do you see these recommendations being implemented to improve policing? How should the town address panhandling?
Though not new, with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others this past year, the rage and anguish over police brutality reached new heights in this country. Once again, the failures of policing as an institution were revealed to a stunned nation and calls for change in policing spread across the nation with new urgency. It is long overdue for local, state, and federal governments to root out the racism baked into our structures, policies, and practices – starting with policing. It’s certainly not a new conversation for people of color in our community.
Following impassioned public comment and Council direction, driven by a resolution that I co-wrote, and building on the years of impassioned activism and advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, last summer the Town of Chapel Hill launched the Re-imagining Community Safety (RICS) Task Force. Its purpose was to advise the Council on approaches to public safety that intentionally and actively dismantle racism, implicit bias, and discriminatory practices, and increase safety for everyone, especially historically impacted communities and individuals.
Systemic racism and racial bias are interwoven into the fabric of our community and criminal justice system, but Chapel Hill can serve as a model by committing to a fundamental re-imagination of how equitable public safety services can be offered so that there is an experience of community well-being equitably shared by all. I served as a liaison to the RICS and fully support the recommendations of that diverse group. Specifically, in the immediate term, I support investment in establishing a 24-hour non-police crisis response team and restructuring of 911; expansion of the Street Outreach, Harm Reduction, and Deflection Program (SOHRAD); and an increased investment in prevention over punishment. The FY22 Town budget reduced the number of uniformed officers and shifted that funding to be used as an initial investment in implementing the RICS recommendations. We will also need to work closely with the county on these efforts. I am proud of the leadership role I played in these efforts, including harnessing the power of the Town government to take quick action, drafting the resolutions and taskforce charge and criteria, serving on the selection committee, and supporting the excellent work of the task force as Council liaison.
I have also been working with our police chief, town manager, and town attorney to identify which local ordinances are “crimes of poverty” – those that, in effect, criminalize and punish behaviors committed by those experiencing poverty and/or homelessness – so that we can decriminalize them. This is also a recommendation from the RICS and the NC criminal justice reform task forces. Panhandling and sleeping outdoors are examples of this. Instead of responding to these behaviors as crimes, we should instead offer support and services. This is precisely the role of the SOHRAD program, which I am in favor of expanding with the new funds set aside by the Town Council this fiscal year. Offering support, linkages to mental health and substance treatment programs, employment and housing resources through trained peer workers and social workers in place of criminalization, is in line with our Town’s values and the goal of re-imagining what a safe community for all looks like.
10. How should the Greene Tract be developed?
The Mapping Our Community’s Future report, developed following nine months of community-first planning by the Rogers-Eubanks community and other stakeholders, calls for a plan for the Greene Tract that honors the history of that community, respects the cultural and natural character of the neighborhood, and creates housing and economic opportunities for long-time residents and their families. This extensive process, undertaken in 2016, resulted in a rich and nuanced report that documents the community’s history and hopes and fears, along with potential future land uses and development do’s and don’ts. An overarching theme emerging from the report is a call for community and history preservation, which requires, as they see it, provision of green space as well as thoughtful affordable housing and neighborhood-scale retail development. I am supportive of this approach.
The Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County governments all made a commitment to abide by the guidance offered in that 2016 report. While some are calling for preservation above all else, it is unthinkable that we would disregard the hard work, community engagement, and trust that went into developing the report -which would mean ignoring, yet again, the wishes and concerns of this long-marginalized community. The process that was begun by the three governments in 2018 to move from that guidance to a high-level land use concept plan should continue to move forward as quickly as possible.
Having this much land under public ownership offers a rare and exciting opportunity to meet many community interests and needs. As we move forward, we can – and must – listen to and be guided by the RENA community. The current concept plan calls for preservation of over 80 acres of green space, including the entire 60-acre headwaters preserve, development of mixed-income affordable housing, residential-scale retail, and a site for a potential future school. This plan will help to ensure a thriving future for the RENA community, help to meet the affordable housing scarcity Chapel Hill is experiencing, and provide ample green space for use by the entire community.
The fight over the future of the Greene Tract, which has become an issue during this campaign, is, sadly, an example of the harmful rhetoric which has become all too common in Chapel Hill over the last several years. We have allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of a false dichotomy. This should not be trees vs. people. It should be trees and people. With thoughtful planning and open conversations with our community, we can preserve most of our trees, create new, appealing green spaces in town, and have the housing we need for all who wish to live here while avoiding pricing out those who have been historically marginalized. Those on fixed incomes. Those who are working multiple jobs to try to keep their kids in the CHCCS schools. Communities such as Northside, Pine Knolls, and Rogers Road – historically black neighborhoods whose members have been systematically priced out of homes that have been in their families for generations. When there are competing public interests, the choices are hard, but I believe that we can find balances that preserve and even enhance the environment while also addressing the critical needs of our residents.
Additionally, while much focus has gone to preserving all trees, we hear far less about the fact that on any given night no fewer than 40 unsheltered people are living among those trees. Those 40 represent only 20% of our county’s homeless population, the other 80% of whom have temporary housing due to our incredible local shelter and housing providers. It’s also important to note that since the start of the pandemic, homelessness in the county has increased by 40%. Recently, a limited numbers of trees have been cut down to make room for affordable housing, senior housing, rental housing, and better access to health care. These are the tradeoffs we need to be willing to make and the context within which decisions about the future of the Greene Tract need to be carefully considered.
11. The town recently adopted a Climate Action Plan. Do you think the plan goes far enough in addressing issues related to climate change? What are some short and long term actionable items you see coming out of the plan?
We must take urgent action locally, regionally, nationally, and globally to address the rapid change that is causing severe and lasting damage to the planet. This will require phasing out fossil fuels and, as rapidly as possible, ending GHG emissions. The Council adopted a resolution to be a 100% clean, renewable energy community by 2050 and passed our first Climate Action and Response Plan (CARP) to chart our path to achieving that goal. As such I believe that it is a very good plan, and I am proud to have been able to adopt it.
As a member of the Town Council, I have been a vocal and consistent advocate on climate issues, in particular for changes in how the Town thinks about transportation and land use. Reducing vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is a key strategy of our new Climate Action and Response Plan and critical to meeting our ambitious GHG reduction commitment by 2030. Per a recent NCDOT report on VMT reduction, on a per household basis, urban households produce much lower average daily VMT and much fewer trips than both suburban and rural households. In 2009, the average urban household in North Carolina drove 32.7 miles per day while rural North Carolina households drove 74 percent more miles, or 56.8 miles per day. Similarly, urban North Carolina households averaged 4.4 automobile trips per day while rural North Carolina households averaged 23 percent more, or 5.4 trips per day.
Smart growth approaches that combine dense infill development with access to multi-modal transit options will get people out of cars and offer significant environmental and health benefits for the community. I have worked hard to help raise the visibility of these important policy shifts by leveraging my role on Council to advocate at meetings, publish thought pieces on social media and in local media outlets, and have worked to model this shift as a community member and family. I have been a strong advocate for transit friendly projects; advocated for land use approaches in the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) that concentrate development along central transit corridors and intend to see this continued into our LUMO; and supported the development and funding of the Town’s first Climate Action and Response Plan.
Moving forward, we must continue to invest in planning for the BRT, transitioning the Town’s fleet to electric, including the addition of electric buses, as funding allows. Given the serious limitations of what we can do at the local level, we must also prioritize collaboration with neighboring jurisdictions and aggressive advocacy to get help at the State level. Additionally, as stated above, transportation is now the leading source of GHGs in the US. As such, careful thought about land use and transportation planning is key to reducing our climate footprint. Investment in public transit, including the NS BRT currently under development, will ensure that our community continues to grow in a dense, compact, and sustainable way that will minimize emissions from automobile travel.
12. How do you feel Orange County, municipal, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board officials have handled the COVID-19 pandemic? If you don’t think the pandemic was handled well, what should have been done differently?
As hard as the last 18 months have been– and continue to be, especially with the delta variant’s arrival — I am proud of Chapel Hill and Orange County’s response to the pandemic. From the beginning, our response has been informed by three key principles:
• Relying on science: We have always been and will continue to be guided by the latest science and data
• Prioritizing equity: We have applied an equity lens to our response, prioritizing those most vulnerable to and impacted by COVID
• Emphasizing collaboration: We have collaborated effectively with county, non-profits, schools, and community members to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and avoid duplication and gaps in service provision.
These pillars have served us well so far in mitigating the worst impacts of this pandemic on our community. Because of this approach and the unwavering commitment of Town staff and community partners we have, for example:
• The highest vaccination rate in the state
• One of the lowest infection rates in the state
• Ready access to testing and vaccines free of charge
• Public health-informed community guidelines that have been updated as the virus – and science’s understanding of it – has evolved
• Town-subsidized financial and other supports to local businesses to help keep their doors open
• A robust social support network that has provided food, prevented evictions, and found housing for those without, including distribution of over $1.5 million in emergency housing and utilities assistance and over one million meals to children and their families
• Neighborhood-based scholastic and childcare support programs for low-income and refugee families
• A long-term economic recovery plan.
Experienced leadership has seen Chapel Hill through the pandemic with far better outcomes than many of our peers around the state and nation. Going forward we as elected leaders now have the challenge of helping our community recover from the pandemic. We have already started to do this, and I look forward to working with our entire community to determine the best ways for us to use the American Rescue Plan funds available to us.
13. In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
We share a vision of a Town that is fair and equitable—where access to government and services is not constrained by race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. Recent events, however, have shown that equity and inclusion are missing from governments at all levels, even in a town like Chapel Hill, which has ostensibly embraced it for many years. We struggle to achieve real diversity on our boards and commissions. We know that underserved populations are poorly represented in our public participation processes. Despite our best efforts, policing and justice systems still consistently reflect systemic racism and disparate outcomes. For these reasons and more, public trust in government is at an all-time low, particularly among people of color.
To achieve more equitable outcomes, we need to strengthen inclusion of more and different voices in our decision-making processes. This is the foundation for – and pre-requisite to – more representative government that can achieve a more racially equitable and just Chapel Hill.
When joining the Council four years ago, I was surprised to learn that the Town did not already have a robust community engagement strategy that includes participatory outreach practices. The Town said it wanted to understand who is impacted by proposed policies, practices, and budget decisions and what the unintended consequences might be. Yet, it did not have a formal policy or process that defines expectations for community engagement, or tools in place to ensure representation of the Town’s diversity. Additionally, the Council did not have a formal practice or set of tools to weigh equity considerations in Council and staff decision-making. The only way in which we will move forward with these priorities is to institutionalize them within our Town by creating a specific policy, tools, and accountabilities for their use.
I immediately began advocating for the Town to engage with GARE – the Government Alliance for Racial Equity – which offers training, technical assistance, and toolkits to assess and strengthen equitable structures and decision-making in government. The Town has since joined the NC GARE cohort, participated in a year of training, and is now incorporating the toolkit across departments. In another positive move, this Spring the Town hired its first Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officer, Shenekia Weeks. This position will take the lead in addressing both internal and external equity concerns in Town government. A top priority for the DEI Officer must be to develop, implement, and measure effectiveness of a whole of government equitable community engagement strategy that ensures all Town public processes and community engagement efforts result in broad and diverse input and representation. This should be done by leveraging existing communication structures led by communities of color and including piloting and scaling up use of digital tools and other innovative engagement approaches. I also would like her to work with the Council to put in place a formal process for assessing our decision-making through an equity lens. This should include analysis of budget and policy decisions, advisory board member selection, and our current process for soliciting and receiving public input. Only by creating and fostering long-term Town-community partnerships at organization and household levels can we ensure continual feedback and ongoing improvements to Town decision-making structures. I am grateful for the new leadership, experience, and energy Ms. Weeks is bringing to this critical work. Together, we can make genuine progress towards our vision of a Town that is fair and equitable.
14. In your view, how can the town improve public transit, especially in terms of serving lower-income residents? How can the town recruit and retain more bus drivers? How can bike lanes be made safer and more efficient?
Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) is a remarkable achievement—the result of a decades-long collaboration between Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and UNC-CH—and a shining example of what can be accomplished when these three entities come together around a common cause. Based on pre-COVID data, CHT is the second largest transit system in the State (behind only Charlotte) and the second largest fare free system in the entire country (behind Kansas City).
Serving lower income residents, in many cases those who work at UNC-CH and UNC Healthcare, has long been a primary role of CHT. About four years ago, to do this more effectively, CHT undertook the development of a short-term strategy to make its route network more efficient and effective and continue to meet needs that riders and others in our community have long expressed. One of the main goals of that effort was to better serve lower-income residents and others who are transit-dependent. As a result, routes were rationalized so that available resources could serve those who need transit the most. This resulted in initiating Sunday service for the first time in CHT’s history and expanding evening service which is a need for those work shifts at UNC and elsewhere. Even before the completion of the short-term strategy, CHT expanded the HS route to better meet the needs of residents of our Rogers Road community.
Our planned North South Bus Rapid Transit system (NS BRT), when built, will also have a major impact on our lower-income residents, as it is planned to provide high frequency, high-capacity service seven days a week until about 11 PM.
The fundamental challenge we face in our desire to do more for lower-income and transit-dependent residents is a lack of financial resources. Although CHT is the single largest item in our Town’s budget, it is not enough. Many states provide significant funding to local transit systems, while North Carolina does not. Only about $2 million of CHT’s $23 million budget comes from the state. And NCDOT’s allocation of capital funding is capped at about six percent of its allocations. Again, clearly inadequate. The situation for regional transit is even worse. As noted previously, Chapel Hill is a major job center, with over 40,000 people coming into our community every day, yet our regional system is woefully inadequate in terms of meeting this need.
As the question correctly notes, a shortage of drivers is making CHT’s situation worse. It is down approximately 40 drivers, which has resulted in significant service reductions and CHT contracting out three routes to a private vendor. And this is not just a CHT problem. NCDOT estimates that statewide, our transit operators are short about 340 drivers. There are no simple solutions this pressing problem. Short-term, we will need to consider increasing wages, which we have done already this past spring, and explore ways to improve working conditions. Longer-term, as with many other workers in Chapel Hill, we need to create housing opportunities in our community, so that our drivers can live in the Town that they serve and not have to make the commutes that they now do. We also need to work with our high schools and community colleges to train drivers and create pathways to employment at CHT as we now do with firefighters.
In terms of bike lanes, we need to expand the numbers that we have, to the greatest extent possible, remove them from the traffic flow, and where this is not possible, provide protection for them using bollards, raised pavement, signage, and striping. For example, a project on Estes Drive, that has just begun construction, will create bike lanes that are completely separated from the flow of cars, thereby making them both safer and more efficient. We need to do much more of this across the entire Town. I have proposed a new bond issue to provide funds for these kinds of improvements to our bike/ped infrastructure.
I also believe that we need to take advantage of and promote the increasing use of eBikes. Particularly in a town with the topography of ours, eBikes will allow many more residents to take advantages of investments in bike infrastructure, thereby increasing the ROI on the funds that we spend.
15. If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
Given the increasing numbers of severe storm events caused by climate change, stormwater is becoming an increasingly important concern in Chapel Hill as in so many other places. Chapel Hill is, or has been, a longtime leader in addressing environmental issues, including stormwater management. With the increase in severe storm events, which is likely to worsen in the years ahead, I believe that Chapel Hill needs to undertake a comprehensive review and update of its stormwater regulation and polices to ensure that they can meet the challenges of the years ahead. I, along with several of my Council colleagues, have submitted a petition calling for such a comprehensive review over the next 18 months.
Related to the above, is a more recent concern that has emerged in our Town. Local flooding is and has been a long-time concern in Chapel Hill, one that the Council has committed to addressing. Based on recent studies performed by our stormwater management staff, recommendations were developed to construct several stormwater storage basins in the Booker Creek watershed. The first of these, near Elliott Road, was recently completed and appears to be performing according to plan. The next two, Red Bud and Piney Mountain, were approved for design and construction by the Council this past spring. However, thanks to concerns brought to our attention by many residents, we realized that the construction of these basins would necessitate the destruction of some 15 acres of forest, something that goes counter to the Council’s and our Town’s goals. We have withdrawn approval of work on these basins.
Instead, we have created a working group to explore options that do not rely exclusively on engineering solutions but use more ecologically sound means for achieving the same ends – reduction of flooding that damages our residences and our businesses. We expect a report within six to twelve months and at that time we will move forward with a plan that, hopefully, does not do damage to our forest and broader ecology while addressing the associated flooding issues.
This is an example of how, when the Town works constructively with our residents, we can achieve better outcomes for all.
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