Name as it appears on the ballot: Robert Beasley
Party affiliation: Unaffiliated
Occupation & employer: IT Professional
Years lived in Chapel Hill: Around 4 since moving back. Around 11 in total.
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 concerned with how the Town Government is operating and the direction the Mayor and Town Council have been taking us over the last 4 years. Fundamentally, I think the way the Town Government is running and making decisions is the biggest underlying issue. The Town’s mode of operation is driving a set of policies and behaviors that is not prioritizing the needs of our residents over developers and outside investors. The Town has no real strategy and plan for delivering on the priorities of Affordable Housing, Adequate Infrastructure for our current and future needs, and Conservation, and a strategy with an incomplete plan for Climate Change. The Town’s approach is actually undermining all of those priorities, and it is diminishing Chapel Hill’s Identity and Values — core assets that distinguish Chapel Hill from other Towns and Cities. As for why should the voters entrust me with this position, I have over 27 years experience working with large organizations, with much of that time spent on corporate operational/design/and governance policies, standards, regulatory compliance. I think this experience will be beneficial and contribute to my effectiveness as a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.
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?
No, I would not. First, our Town Government is not effectively addressing Land Use Management. There is no real strategy or plan that leads to a clear vision for Chapel Hill. The recently updated Future Land Use Map, which is supposed to provide that vision, includes the statement “The Future Land Use Map was constructed to provide flexibility and to reduce the need for FLUM amendments.” This statement is quite telling. On the surface it looks like a reasonable ideal; keep things flexible so that we can go in a variety of directions without having to make changes to the strategy and vision. But if you consider how this plays out in the Town Government’s operations with regards to Land Use, it means there is insufficient clarity in what the Town intends to do with regards to Land Use. Individual projects get looked at case by case, without a real understanding of whether or not it progresses or conflicts with a clear end vision. And we are ending up with a patchwork collection of development efforts that have been cobbled together, without an understanding of the overarching impacts to transportation, walkability, cycling, easy access to grocery stores or local businesses, or even environmental impacts to literal downstream neighborhoods and businesses. This mode of operation is threatening our Town’s diversity, local businesses and cultural establishments. It is going to seriously diminish Chapel Hill’s identity as a diverse, liberal, college town and transform it into a densely populated, urban city with the same branded businesses that are found everywhere else. We need real strategies and real plans, and we need rules and ordinances that we follow consistently so that we get to where we want to be.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
I think the most pressing issue is the lack of a real Land Use Strategy and Plan, which I spoke to earlier. We absolutely need to define a more specific strategy and plan than what we have in the FLUM. And then we need to follow those up with a revised set of Ordinances that will guide our developments along that plan. Related to that, we need a real, comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy and Plan. The current strategy is flawed, as – from what I have seen – it relies completely on new development. New development is a long term solution, and Affordable Housing is an immediate problem. We need to expand the strategy and plan to include the acquisition of existing residences by the Town and our Non-Profit Partners, so that they can be re-offered as Affordable Housing. Some non profits do this for ownership already, so the immediate focus needs to be on executing this with rental housing. Affordable Housing is such a core issue for Chapel Hill’s future that we need to start prioritizing it higher in the Town’s budget, and we need to move away from the mindset I have encountered with some members of Town Government that we need to do Affordable Housing as cheaply as possible, and that we can address the issue by simply building more housing to keep up with demand. The recent Housing Study that was presented to the Town Council Economic Sustainability Committee made it pretty clear that this cannot be solved by addressing the supply side alone; we simply cannot build enough housing in the roughly 21 square miles of Chapel Hill to keep up with the housing demand and provide adequate affordable housing. I’m pressing the 300 word limit here, so I will end with that.
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.
I cited my professional experience earlier, so I won’t repeat it here. In terms of actual government or political experience or endorsements, I do not have any. And while I understand these matter to some folks, I am hopeful that my responses and how they illustrate my way of assessing and coming up with approaches for addressing the issues will resonate with the residents of Chapel Hill.
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 Town Government has got to make Affordable Housing a true priority, and build a comprehensive strategy and plan that will delivery both immediate and future Affordable Housing inventory for both rental and ownership. The Mayor and Town Council Members all say Affordable Housing is a priority, but I find little evidence of this in practice. Take Trinity Court for example. This was a 40+ two and three bedroom public housing apartment complex in the Northside Neighborhood within walking distance to downtown, with strong public transportation access, and it sat on a hillside overlooking Umstead Park. An affordable housing asset that should have been coveted and invested in by a Town that considers affordable housing a priority. Now it stands vacant since 2018, declared uninhabitable due to mold and water damage. One more Town asset lost to neglect. And while the Town is moving forward with a redevelopment plan for the site, that plan does not have residents moving in until the spring of 2025. Children who were in elementary school when Trinity Court had to be vacated will have graduated high school by the time families live there again. Affordable housing needs to be a real priority for Chapel Hill, and the Town Government has got to invest in it as such.
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?
I believe that what we are seeing in Chapel Hill with the tax revaluations, rising rents, and even the increased vulnerability of mobile home park residents are directly tied to the issues of Town Government operations regarding Land Use, and the lack of Land Use and Affordable Housing strategies and plans that I have cited already. There seems to be a school of thought in Chapel Hill that subscribes to the notion that if we just build enough housing to keep up with demand, then there will be enough of a housing supply such that anyone who wants to live here will be able to afford to live here. I see this as fantasy. Chapel Hill is about 21 square miles of land. It is already denser than Durham, but not quite as dense as Raleigh or Cary. We simply cannot build enough housing to solve the problem with a pure supply side solution. We are seeing the dramatic increases in property values and rising rents because the overwhelming majority of new housing is not affordable. The development projects I have seen in the last several months are almost exclusively branded as ‘luxury’. This is driving higher home sales, which drives higher tax revaluations. And this is driving rising rents, and it is increasing development pressure on mobile home parks. We have got to put real Land Use Strategies, Plans and Ordinances in place to address Affordable Housing and the ‘missing middle’ – which gets referenced by Chapel Hill Government all the time, yet there is not clear definition or criteria for by the Town – or we are going to lose the diversity and culture that so many residents treasure in Chapel Hill.
7) The town recently approved the Aura and University Place projects and more large development projects will continue to come before the council. What do you want to see from large development projects such as these and should the town develop comprehensive long term goals for projects? 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?
Absolutely the Town needs to develop comprehensive long term goals for projects. And we not only need to develop them, we need to stick to them. From what I have seen, the development projects are all handled ‘piecemeal’ today. Each one is looked at within its immediate scope. Questions get asked about the broader implications on traffic, the environment, stormwater runoff, and I see the same patterns repeating over and over again. The developers say ‘well we can only speak to the site itself, and to whether or not we meet the requirements in the Town’s Ordinances, which we do.’ And then the Town Government seems to either rely on the Town Staff to provide the broader assessment – all the while acknowledging that the Town Staff is overworked and therefore can miss things – or pins the solution to the raised concern on some future project investment that is dependent on some State or Federal body or funding, which in reality may or may not come to pass. We have got to stop operating this way, as it is resulting in patchwork developments that frequently undermine our priorities and future vision.
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?
I think the Downtown Together initiative is a good idea, but I am concerned that it is going to be misused in a way that negatively transforms downtown, due to a lack in our vision, strategy, and plan. For example, one of the upcoming development proposals for downtown is a hotel on the corner of Rosemary and MLK Jr Blvd that will ‘cradle’ the historic Town Hall. I am deeply concerned that the Downtown Together initiative will be used as a justification for allowing this developer to build a structure that violates the hight limit such that it becomes an imposing structure for both the Northside Neighborhood and the historic Town Hall, and contributes to parking issues for the Northside Neighborhood, while providing little benefit – if any – to the Town. There is an apartment complex being proposed on the opposite corner next to the new Parking Deck that has me concerned as well.
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?
Let me make sure I understand the question. You are asking how I see the recommendations from the Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force being implemented to improve policing in the June 24, 2020 Resolution “A Resolution on Developing New Community Approaches To Improve Racial Equity and Public Safety In Chapel Hill”. If I have understood this correctly, the throughout the resolution there are several specific actions that are intended to improve policing. For example, “End all regulatory traffic stops (low level, non-moving violations that do not address public safety)…” and “Prohibit chokeholds and ensure that CHPD policies and training reflect that prohibition, as this procedure poses an unacceptable risk of death or serious bodily injury.” The way the resolution is drafted spells out the actions to be implemented based on the Task Force recommendations to improve policing. Now that said, I think the Town Council needs to further establish and maintain oversight of the Police Department to ensure that these recommendations have been and remain implemented in practice. One need only look back to September 2020 – just three months after the Resolution was approved by the Town Council — where it was revealed that the Police Department had made a “quiet revision” of the Town Council’s ban on chokeholds, to understand the need for this continued monitoring and oversight. With regards to panhandling, the Resolution called for “a listing of local ordinances that may criminalize poverty, specifically those related to panhandling and sleeping in public” (among other things) to be shared with the community in an easily accessible format on the Town’s website. I have not yet found this listing, and I have yet not started to form an opinion of what should be done to address panhandling.
10) How should the Greene Tract be developed? Does town government have a responsibility to protect public forests, parks, and other green spaces near low income communities as it currently protects public land near wealthy ones?
I have only recently started to learn about the Greene Tract, the history behind it, and the current discussions about its future, so I do not have an indepth view of how it should be developed. I can say that I believe the Town of Chapel Hill has made commitments to the community that current resides there, and these need to be honored. In moving forward with any development of portions of the Greene Tract, I would like to see tight collaboration between the Town and the community that lives there. The Town needs to be sure and prioritize the needs of that community, and ensure they have a strong voice in any development plans as well as in the selection of developers and builders who will deliver on those plans. I suspect that the existing community does not want to ‘pave over’ or environmentally destroy the Greene Tract’s ecosystem. I believe a balance can be struck that delivers on the commitments made to the existing community, and delivers development which will benefit and sustain the community, and still preserve green space and provide environmental protections within the Greene Tract.
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?
I think the Climate Action Plan should do more in the short term. Specifically, the Plan needs to include an assessment of all development projects against a set of Climate Action Criteria to determine if the project (a) aligns with and progresses the Climate Strategy, (b) is neutral to the Climate Strategy, or (c) impedes the Climate Strategy. Anything that is impeding the Climate Strategy and runs counter to the Plan needs to be stopped and reworked so that it aligns with and progresses the Climate Strategy. Anything that is neutral should be evaluated for changes that will shift it into the aligns/progresses category. The second short term action needs to be an assessment of the Town’s current Boards, Commissions, and Departments. The assessment needs to determine if any of those as currently defined and operating impede or undermine the Climate Strategy and plan. And if they do, changes need to be made so that they are either neutral to the Climate Strategy and Plan or – ideally – they are positioned to progress the Strategy and Plan. The assessment should also recommend any new Boards, Commissions, or Departments that need to be established to progress the Plan and ensure execution of the Strategy; and the Town Government should implement those recommendations.
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?
I am not sure I know enough to answer yes or no. With regards to the Chapel Hill municipal Town Government, I know the Town Government worked to help provide housing to folks who had lost it due to the pandemic. I know the Town Government worked to help provide food to folks that needed it during the pandemic. I know the Town made laptops available for school children who needed them to do schooling from home. I know the Town did many things and has plans to do more. But was it handled well? It is still too soon to answer that question. If one answers ‘yes’, does that imply there is nothing more the Town should do? If one answers ‘no’ because there is more to be done, does that imply that everything done so far has been handled badly? As for specific things I think should have been done differently, I have no suggestions at this time. I do think that in the next two years, the Chapel Hill Town Council needs to do an assessment to look at what was done, what worked, and what did not. And then look to implement a playbook for what to do in the event of ‘the next pandemic’ or similar long lasting catastrophic situation.
13) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
To be fair, I do not know what the Town is doing today to engage with historically marginalized groups, so it is difficult for me to say ‘here is what we need to do to better engage’. That said, I think it starts with the Town Council and Town Staff making themselves accessible to historically marginalized groups. And that does not just mean make the Town Council meetings open to the public, or putting information on a website, or listing email and telephone contact information for residents to make use of. We have to recognize that historically marginalized groups (a) may not have access to, or experience in how to find this information and these points of contact, and (b) are likely suspicious and untrusting of the Town and Town Government because they have been historically marginalized. So we have to find ways to go out to these groups, find and engage with their points of contact. We have to make a real effort to proactively and repeatably seek out and reach out to historically marginalized groups and work to get them engaged. And when we meet resistance to those efforts, because the groups are suspicious or untrusting, we cannot just say ‘well, we tried but they did not want to work with us.’ We have to keep trying, or they will be perpetually marginalized groups – and I believe that is counter to the Values and Identity we have and want for Chapel Hill.
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?
Allow me to use your question about recruiting and retaining bus drivers to expand on the Affordable Housing points I was making earlier. Take a look at the recent reduction in service the Town had to make for the bus transit, both in routes and service times, due to a shortage of bus drivers. The Town increased the starting wages for bus drivers to try and attract more drivers, but this was not enough. Now why can’t the Town find enough bus drivers? We can trace it back to affordable housing. The recent housing study I mentioned earlier found that 90% of local jobs are filled by commuters outside of Chapel Hill. Bus drivers likely commute into Chapel Hill for their job. This is an increased cost to them, and so Chapel Hill has to be prepared to pay more for bus drivers, and we have to pay more for bus drivers than other towns and cities in the area, where it is more affordable to live. When I learned about the pay increase Chapel Hill was offering, I searched for what Durham pays their bus drivers, and found that Durham’s starting pay was more. Now what are the chances that someone who cannot afford to live in Chapel Hill is going to take a job as a bus driver in Chapel Hill for less than they can make in Durham, when they can commute a little bit further for the Durham job, or better yet, live in Durham in more affordable housing AND get paid more as a bus driver in their home town? We have got to quickly come up with real solutions for our affordable housing challenges in Chapel Hill, or we will continue to find ourselves having to pay more for bus drivers and other workers, which will further drive up the costs of services in our Town, and further diminish our available funds for making investments that improve our public transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks.
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