There’s a clear difference between the two Town Council members who are neck-and-neck to be the next mayor of Chapel Hill, we’re told by reliable liberals. Kevin Foy is an environmental activist who’s tough on developers. Lee Pavao is a businessman who isn’t. Case closed, comrades?

But then, why is Joe Herzenberg, a former Town Council member with strong liberal credentials, supporting Pavao? The Rev. Robert Seymour, the former pastor at Binkley Memorial Baptist Church who’s virtually a liberal institution in Chapel Hill, is also for Pavao. “They’re both good candidates,” Seymour says.

So are the differences clear?

Partly, it’s a generational question. Seymour and Herzenberg are contemporaries of Pavao’s, who is 68, and they’ve worked with him in the past on social issues like senior citizens, the town’s homeless shelter and gay rights. Herzenberg says he’s for Pavao because Pavao supported him when he ran for council in 1987 and became the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina. “It’s not a big deal now,” Herzenberg says. “But it was then.”

On the other side, Foy, a 45-year old lawyer, comes from a younger cohort of liberals whose focus is on environmental issues and managing growth. They believe, as Bill Strom, Foy’s close ally on the council, puts it, that Chapel Hill “has slipped over the years” from being the pacesetter on nuts-and-bolts issues like storm water control, transportation reform and open-space preservation.

The difference between Foy and Pavao, Strom says, is that Foy looks at the big picture of Chapel Hill as an ecosystem and sees it under severe stress. So he’s less inclined than past councils–and Pavao–to make case-by-case exceptions to local zoning rules and more inclined to make the standards for development even tougher.

“Kevin’s approach is more comprehensive … and will make a difference here for generations to come,” Strom says.

Dan Coleman, a sometime Green Party activist and current political chair of the local Sierra Club chapter describes Pavao as “the most reliable vote on the council in favor of growth.” If Foy can convey his slow-growth record, “I think he wins,” Coleman adds.

The two candidates do have different records on growth issues. To start with the most obvious one, Pavao backed the rezoning for Meadowmont, a huge development on the eastern edge of town; Foy opposed it as a candidate for mayor in 1995, almost upsetting Mayor Rosemary Waldorf in the bargain. (Waldorf isn’t seeking reelection this year.)

Foy and Pavao have also differed on road widenings, impact fees for developers, and on whether to adopt an Adequate Public Facilities ordinance that would bar development if the school system isn’t ready for it. Pavao is for the ordinance only if the town gets to trigger it; Foy would let the school system make the call.

On roads, Pavao backed the controversial decision to four-lane all of Weaver Dairy Road, where development is speeding along, and an unsuccessful effort to widen Columbia Street coming out of the south side of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus; Foy, as a rule, is against widening any more roads.

Whether these are differences in kind, as Foy maintains, or merely of degree, as Pavao says, is the central question of the campaign–and a question of interest not just in Chapel Hill but throughout the Triangle.

One reason to care is that the mayor of Chapel Hill is, ex-officio, the Triangle’s leading liberal, at least until Raleigh, Durham or Cary elects someone who wants that title. In that vein, Waldorf has been active on transportation issues, working with Durham and Cary to overcome Raleigh’s resistance to a regional transit system; both Pavao and Foy say they’ll continue what she started.

More than that, Chapel Hill serves all of the Triangle as “Our Town,” in the sense of the Thornton Wilder play. It’s the one place, amid the subdivisions and strip malls, where we can still go downtown; still stroll along Franklin Street; still see students and old-timers in regular contact–and happy about it. But diversity in Our Town isn’t a given, and it’s not clear that it can survive the next burst of growth that will come as the university adds to its main campus and also develops the 1,000-acre Horace Williams tract that stands nearly vacant just north of town on Airport Road.

For people who are truly interested in “smart growth,” the toughest problem is striking a balance between economic growth and land conservation without driving up the price of housing to the point that only the rich can afford it. Chapel Hill is ahead of the rest of the Triangle in some respects–it has a growth boundary, for example, and it insists that every development include “affordable housing.” But inside the growth boundary, the open spaces are filling up fast, the traffic is thick, parking is tight, and housing is scarce.

Foy’s campaign is about convincing voters that these issues require strong leadership, and that he will be tougher than Pavao. Pavao, while acknowledging some differences in the past, argues that there is no real gap between them on the growth issues ahead. Actually, he doesn’t argue so much as smile and say that when it comes to being tough on developers, “I think we’re all doing that.”

A sunny disposition is Pavao’s best asset–that and lots of time to be mayor, since he is retired and affluent. He shows up at civic events, he says. Foy doesn’t make as many.

Foy, by contrast, is a little shy, very serious, and quick to say that he must work full time to make a living. But he claims a better record of heavy lifting on unsexy issues like solid-waste management and affordable housing, and when someone says–as a columnist in the Chapel Hill News did recently–that he and Pavao don’t differ much, it makes him angry.

“You do your readers a disservice,” Foy shot back in a letter. “The news media similarly failed voters last fall, when in its somnolence, it led people to believe there was little difference between Bush and Gore.”

Four years ago, Foy ran about 10 percent ahead of Pavao–4,126 votes to 3,659 council seats. But the town has grown since then, mainly in pricey communities like Southern Village, giving Pavao an excellent chance of overcoming that edge with newer, upscale voters.

Given Pavao’s appeal to older voters, Foy needs to convince younger ones, including Gen-X liberals like Ruby Sinreich, a council candidate two years ago who is now a member of the planning board. So when Sinreich says that, “really, both are good candidates,” but she’s not excited by either one’s “leadership qualities,” it’s clear that Foy isn’t getting his message through just yet.

Complicating things for Foy is the third candidate in the race, Cam Hill, who is just the free-swinging sort of guy who will get a message through (see “The Third Way?” page 23). Hill is the Ralph Nader in Foy’s Bush-Gore world–indeed, Hill says he’d have voted for Nader last year if he’d been on the ballot in North Carolina.

Unlike Nader, Hill has no record on public issues coming into the campaign. But just like Nader, he’s real clear about what he thinks: He’s against growth, period.

It could turn out that the more Hill talks about what’s wrong in Chapel Hill, the more he’ll persuade voters that there is reason to be alarmed about the state of affairs–and therefore, vote for Foy. But if he persuades voters that both frontrunners are part of the problem and a protest vote for him is the best answer–advantage Pavao.

Yes, Lee Pavao supported Meadowmont, the huge development off Route 54 that is the first word on anyone’s lips when they’re talking about growth in Chapel Hill. It was controversial then, in 1995. As it takes shape today, it still is–as Pavao fully understands.

So what does he think about Meadowmont now?

“It’s turning out exactly as I envisioned it,” Pavao says. It isn’t perfect, but the people who live there like it, he says, and the town got a school site, park and land for 32 affordable housing units from developer Roger Perry in exchange for allowing more density on land that was originally meant for large-lot houses only.

Meadowmont, Pavao says, is a good example of “the give-and-take that’s required” whenever a developer applies for a rezoning. With his years in international business, he says, “I think I’m a better negotiator than Kevin, because I’ve had more experience at it in situations he doesn’t get into as an attorney.”

Pavao (rhymes with “now,” he likes to say) is quiet during council meetings, but approachable and easygoing outside them. His grandparents were Portuguese immigrants who settled in Massachusetts. He worked for 32 years for J. Walter Thompson, one of the world’s biggest advertising firms, in New York, Europe and South America, starting out as an art director and finishing as head of the firm’s office in Brazil.

While in Brazil, Pavao marketed the first alternate-fuel vehicle by getting the president to drive one, and he drove one, too–100 percent alcohol-powered, he says. The experience persuaded him to push the Chapel Hill Council for a test of smaller, alcohol- and electric-fueled buses. He thinks they’ll prove to be economical, and “less intrusive in neighborhoods” than the big, diesel-powered kind. Three small buses are being tested now as part of the Chapel Hill fleet.

Pavao retired to Chapel Hill in 1987. One of his two sons (he also has two daughters) attended UNC-Chapel Hill, and he and his late wife chose it as the place where they wanted to be. Pavao quickly got active, joining the task force that was studying whether Chapel Hill needed a senior citizens’ center. Soon, he was its chair, working closely with the Rev. Seymour. Pavao found a place for the center in a building off Elliott Road that a grocery chain had started; he took it over and, as the project manager, finished it. From there, he moved to the Parks and Recreation Commission, and soon was its chair.

You get the idea. By 1993, “people approached” and Pavao ran for Town Council, winning the first of his two four-year terms. Through Seymour, he’s been an active fundraiser for the Interfaith Council’s soup kitchen and homeless shelter downtown. As the demand for the shelter’s services has grown, both men got behind a plan to build a new one on Airport Road, on the site of the town’s police station, which was to have been torn down and replaced.

Pushing the shelter out of downtown, however, proved unpopular with Chapel Hill liberals who saw its location as symbolically important, and the idea was dropped. Pavao still thinks it made sense (and that spending $1 million to renovate the police station doesn’t) but it’s characteristic of him that he doesn’t dwell on the matter. Instead, he moves smoothly to embrace the new idea of having two shelters, one for men and one for women.

“I lost,” Pavao says, but quickly adds: “What the Interfaith Council does, they do far better than government could do it, at less cost, and it’s something we can’t turn our backs on.”

Pavao defends his record on development in a similarly brisk way. Yes, he voted to widen Columbia Street when the university wanted it done. But now it’s “settled” that it won’t be. Yes, he was part of the council majority that voted to widen Weaver Dairy Road. He says safety, plus the state Department of Transportation’s refusal to pay for an alternate plan that Foy proposed, left the council no other choice.

Pavao’s approach is pragmatic: He embraces smart-growth principles. He’s just a little more flexible than Foy in applying them, he says. He supports affordable housing. He agrees that something must be done to protect Northside, a historically black neighborhood near downtown where houses are falling, one by one, to developers who turn them into rental housing for university students. He’s just a little short on details, saying he’ll appoint a task force to work out solutions.

Pavao’s bottom line: “My heart is in the right place,” he says. But he also believes in being “reasonable.” As proof, he cites another controversial vote he cast in favor of letting a hotel owner rebuild–and get bigger –in a conservation zone. The renovated Days Inn was designed to shed less storm water than the old one, Pavao says, lessening its impact on downstream flooding. And it replaced an old eyesore. The practical approach is something Pavao’s been stressing in the campaign. “I wouldn’t say that I’m more pro-growth than Kevin,” he says. “There are times that he’s been more willing to push the envelope than I.”

Pushing the envelope with developers is exactly what Kevin Foy is all about. And, far from agreeing with Pavao that Chapel Hill’s issues can be settled by consensus, Foy thinks growth in town has reached the point where only strong leadership from the mayor and council will make the future come out right. An Ohio native, he came to Chapel Hill 20 years ago when his wife entered the university for graduate school. He got his law degree at North Carolina Central, started a two-person firm in town, and got active in neighborhood issues and the Sierra Club, which helped launch his 1995 mayoral campaign. In 1997, Foy won a council seat, and he’s finishing his first term.

Foy is a wonk. Talking with him about the issues in his law office, it’s not long before he’s up on his feet, finger to the Orange County map on the wall, pointing to specific places and problems.

For starters, Chapel Hill and neighboring Carrboro, by agreement with the county commissioners, have established what’s called the “rural growth boundary” around both towns. Foy pushed successfully to expand it a bit on the southern boundary with Chatham County so the watershed area there was better protected, he notes. The growth boundary means that Chapel Hill won’t annex the land and put in water and sewer, which means that only a limited number of large-lot, single-family homes can be built. It also means that open space–forest and farms, especially–is protected from development.

But within the growth boundary, Chapel Hill “is under a lot of pressure,” Foy says, as developers vie for the small amount of land still available and the university expands. The average home price is well over $200,000, and most new homes going up cost more than $300,000. Downtown, Franklin Street is still a charming place, but the parking’s tight, shopping is limited, and strangely, there’s no real town commons.

Can Chapel Hill accommodate growth and still survive as a model community?

Yes, Foy says, but only if the mayor and council force developers to cluster houses and commercial buildings, creating enough density on part of the land so that bus service can work, while preserving the rest of it as open space. Also, developers must be required to include smaller, more-affordable houses in the mix of what they build, he says, not just the mega-houses that bring maximum profits.

To Foy, Meadowmont is a prime example of doing it wrong–of giving away a great community asset for very little gain. Rezoning 435 acres handed developer Perry the right to increase the value of his land by tens of millions of dollars, Foy says, and all he gave back was a few acres for a school and a handful of affordable housing units that someone else built–and local government had to subsidize. The additional “park land,” he notes, was a marsh that Perry couldn’t build on anyway.

That’s past history, but Chapel Hill continues to entertain a string of development proposals. Virtually all of them, because of the escalating value of the land within the growth boundary, come with a request for rezoning to allow higher density–and more profit.

Foy’s approach: “The Council has no obligation at all to rezone any property at any time. It’s purely a legislative decision. So we have complete leverage.”

In other words, Foy says, the town can get what it needs, but only if it’s willing to turn developers down flat unless they go along. “It takes more than cajoling,” he says. “It takes saying no.”

Foy was willing to do that on a project called Franklin Square. It was a small development, but set an early precedent for affordable housing when Foy insisted the developer–as a condition of the rezoning–rehabilitate four small houses on the site instead of tearing them down. “They hate my guts,” he says now. “But they did it.”

Since then, Foy’s been credited with pushing the envelope hard enough that developers have put up more than 100 units of affordable housing themselves, and the council has taken to requiring that at least 15 percent of the housing units in any development be small enough so that the average person can afford them.

“Developers have gotten the message that this is what we want,” Foy says.

As downtown fills in and redevelops, developers will have to be pushed especially hard to include affordable units, Foy says. Left alone, they’ll build to the market, which is driving downtown housing prices through the roof–a university professor’s 2,000 square-foot house recently sold for over $1 million–and the town’s core diversity will die.

On the biggest growth issue in Chapel Hill, the $1.5 billion expansion of UNC-Chapel Hill’s main campus, there doesn’t seem to be much of a gap between Foy and Pavao.

While Foy argues that he’ll be tougher on the university than Pavao, that’s hard to demonstrate, since the two served together on the Town Council group that negotiated the terms of UNC’s current expansion plan, and whatever positions they took behind closed doors, they presented a united front in public.

Foy does promise that when UNC starts work on the Horace Williams tract, he’ll insist that development be clustered so that transit can work. To make sure it does, he’ll fight any efforts to widen roads around the tract.

For his part, Pavao recently pledged to donate 15 percent of any campaign contributions he receives to the Orange County Land Trust to support affordable housing. It was the latest in a series of moves by his campaign to narrow the differences between him and Foy and focus attention on Pavao’s claim that, between two very similar liberals, he is the one who will bring “an experienced, calm and steady hand” as a leader.

The debate has played out in the local paper in a recent series of letters to the editor, where Pavao backers argued that since both candidates are good, why not pick the one who will “seek a consensus” and who–by the way–is retired and ready to work full time on the job?

Foy supporters have countered with sometimes strident letters describing the contrast between the two frontrunners as akin to “Ted Kennedy versus Jesse Helms.”

There’s no question that Foy and Pavao are different, and have different records. Whether the differences are vast, however, and whether they add up to a vastly different future for Chapel Hill–and for “smart growth” leadership in the Triangle–is a claim that Foy will have to prove to voters over the next eight weeks.

Put it this way: If people are smiling in Chapel Hill when they go to the polls, edge to the smiling candidate, Pavao. But if they’re frowning and worried that growth must be curbed for Chapel Hill to survive, edge to the candidate with the serious look and message: Foy. EndBlock

The first candidates forum, sponsored by the Sierra Club, is at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 in Town Hall.