Name as it appears on the ballot: Adam Searing
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.adam4chapelhill.com
Occupation & employer: Public interest attorney/health advocate, Georgetown University, Center for Children and Families.
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 56
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
After nearly two years as a Council Member, I see us as a town quickly losing our way. I don’t want Chapel Hill to become another generic urban municipality of luxury apartments and office buildings. My vision is to build a truly modern college town. We can balance healthy growth with other needs — fostering local character, ensuring quality parks/green spaces, nurturing our local businesses, and tackling housing affordability in innovative ways like turbocharging our partnership with UNC to build real affordable housing options for staff, faculty, and students.
I’ve been a public interest attorney and health advocate for over thirty years. My work has meant millions of people in our country have finally gotten decent, affordable health care. To do this I helped pass landmark legislation such as the Children’s Insurance Program, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in states from South Dakota to North Carolina. I grew up in Chapel Hill, a community I love dearly. Local public service has played a huge role in my life, whether that was maintaining hiking and biking trails, coaching kids at Phillips Middle or volunteering in UNC’s vaccine clinic during the pandemic. Since joining the Chapel Hill Town Council two years ago, I have worked with residents on issues from bringing Duke Energy to the table to fix a neighborhood’s power problems to being a strong voice for parks and green space. As mayor, I will do so much more, and it starts with listening – and responding – to the residents of Chapel Hill.
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?
Shortly after my election two years ago, I was briefed by town staff on Chapel Hill’s plan to build family housing on top of our coal ash dump site underneath the police station – without fully removing the toxic ash and other landfill debris. To me, a public health attorney, this seemed like a very bad idea. I worked with a large coalition of town residents and other groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sunrise Movement to make people aware of the extensive new research documenting adverse health effects from coal ash dumps like the one by Bolin Creek in Chapel Hill. This resulted in an independent analysis of the dump site by national environmental experts in coal ash contamination from Duke University that showed troubling levels of toxic chemicals. I then determined that the current standard of new construction for sites like this was to completely remove the ash before building housing – and documented that was the process that UNC used when building even a new warehouse on land contaminated by coal ash at the site of their own coal plant. This was enough to convince my colleagues to back off from the plan to build family housing on the site before removing the ash, although the alternate plan is to build town offices on the site, which I believe is detrimental to our employees’ health. I will continue to fight for the health of our workers and families.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
1. Our budget priorities often ignore the needs of residents. For example, we must stop funding million-dollar out of town consultants to create plans we never implement. Instead, we should put a substantial portion of that money into building parks projects we’ve talked about for a decade, like a new dedicated adaptive playground and a great splash pad. Our residents often travel to other surrounding communities to enjoy parks and recreational opportunities we have consistently failed to provide here in Chapel Hill. In addition, because of debt service and budget shortcomings, we can’t even build large but critical projects like a new much needed new police station. We need to focus on the basics and review our current capital spending.
2. To solve the affordable housing problem, we need bold ideas and big partners. I’ve voted for over $9 million in new affordable housing funding and to build hundreds of new affordable units in just the last year and a half. But Chapel Hill can’t tackle this issue alone. As the owner of 30% of the Town’s land (including an empty airport) and employer of 40% of our workforce, UNC needs to play a much larger role in providing housing for its employees, everyone from housekeepers to nurses to graduate students and young faculty. Let’s bring UNC to the table in a big way to tackle our affordable housing needs while boosting the university’s ability to recruit new employees. We should make this a bigger issue and combine with other UNC system towns like Wilmington, Boone, and Greensboro to present a statewide town/gown system proposal to the governing boards and the legislature for new staff, faculty and student housing in UNC communities across North Carolina. I’ve worked with great coalitions to successfully pass transformative legislation in conservative legislatures multiple times in my career – and we can do the same with this issue.
3. Supercharge equity-focused recreation and green space access through use of innovative, cost-effective solutions already working in other communities. We need to think outside the box to not only expand green space in a rapidly warming world, but also to create new recreational opportunities for our residents along with economic benefits for our community. For example, exciting natural surface trails projects like those being implemented in places from Knoxville, TN, to Old Fort, NC, can bring parks, green space, and community connections for residents faster than we ever thought possible.
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.
As a Town Council we have a major role in passing the town budget to fund basic civic infrastructure and services. And in a wealthy, growing community like Chapel Hill it is highly embarrassing that we have things like a decade-old parks plan on the books where we have funded virtually none of the priority parks recommendations, from a splash pad to a new eastern park. Our budget is such a mess that we can’t borrow enough to build a much-needed police station, even though we have known for years it needed replacement. So, while it is certainly true that local government powers in North Carolina are limited in many areas, to me we are failing in some of our most basic functions of even our limited local government. Therefore, we have plenty of work to do, even within our current powers. That’s why I believe we need new vision, new leadership and new voices on this Council. That’s what it is going to take to build new coalitions to tackle the problems created for our community over the last eight years. And every single successful issue I have worked on – from passing graduated drivers licensing for kids to preventing unjust enrichment of health insurance executives – has been thanks to a coalition of people willing and able to work together. That’s why I said I wouldn’t run for Mayor without the agreement of a great coalition of new voices to run for the Town Council with me – Elizabeth Sharp, Renuka Soll, David Adams, and Breckany Eckhardt.
And while I have been endorsed by groups like the Center for Biological Diversity for my work on our coal ash problems and by people like former Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, I am most proud to be endorsed by many of the ordinary folks in Chapel Hill I have worked with over the last two years. I quote a number of them on the endorsements page of my website [https://adam4chapelhill.com/endorsements/]: a local business owner: “Adam governs through listening to his constituents”; a local accountant: “[Adam] has been honest, direct, and unafraid to go against the popular vote if it isn’t the sensible thing to do”; a local musician: “Adam is responsive with integrity”; and a local attorney: “[Adam] is a progressive who is data driven and his views are evidence based.” I have always tried put the needs of my community first in my service, words, and actions and I will continue to do so as Mayor.
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 voted for and fully support this new affordable housing plan for the town. However, the great ideas in this plan need tens of millions of dollars in new funding in both debt service and new annual appropriations. This critical need must be balanced against our other critical needs in town like building new fire stations and creating the infrastructure needed for our rapidly growing community. That’s why I also support new innovative private efforts to address our affordable housing issues. One example is the St Paul AME church plan for a large senior/affordable housing community on land they currently own. Another idea is bringing substantial new funding and land to the table through a statewide coalition town/gown UNC housing efforts like I describe above. I also support innovation in preserving our already “naturally occurring” affordable housing. We’ve done a lot for affordable housing in Chapel Hill. We need new partners to do more.
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?
Chapel Hill increased property taxes nearly 10% this year. This is on top of Chapel Hill residents – as part of Orange County – paying the highest average county property taxes, not just in North Carolina but in the entire southeastern U.S., from Atlanta to Knoxville to Miami. Town staff would also like to continue increasing taxes each year at a lower level for the next four years. Despite this, Town staff recently told the Council that Chapel Hill cannot afford to even build a new police station to replace our substandard, deteriorating facility. Apparently, we will house our police force in rental offices in the old Blue Cross building near I-40. What does it say that one of the wealthiest towns in North Carolina cannot afford a badly-needed new police station? This is indicative of eight years of fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement by the Town Council, and we should all be embarrassed we are in this situation. We need to turn things around. Some first steps I would take would be to immediately divert the two to five million dollars a year we continue to spend on expensive private development consultants (even after these crushing tax increases) and divert that to our decade-long list of unfunded parks projects. Second, I would initiate a town-wide spending review to identify our spending priorities and trends and see what financially prudent changes we can make. Finally, I would take a hard look at any new capital projects and expenditures that are beyond our core services – we need to make sure we can take care of our critical services as a first priority. Somehow other communities around the Southeast – with tax-exempt universities at their core or not – manage to provide for their residents and build basic civic infrastructure in a way we do not. We need to take a hard look at our spending as well as our revenues and fix our structural deficit.
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?
Here are ten basic criteria for me when looking at any new development proposal:
1. Are we replacing current affordable housing with new luxury development?
2. Does the development include substantial numbers of for-sale housing, like townhomes, or is it mostly luxury apartments?
3. What percentage of the housing being proposed is affordable? Does it meet our minimum standards for affordable housing in new developments?
4. What percentage of the development is actual useable green space and recreational amenities? Does the development meet Chapel Hill’s tree protection ordinance?
5. Is the developer calling retention ponds “green space” or “children’s amenities” and using the time-honored tactic of calling unbuildable steep slopes/wetland or other areas “recreation space” when in reality these areas are not useable for this purpose?
6. What percentage of the development is impermeable surface? Does the development meet higher 100-year storm standards for dealing with stormwater to minimize impact on nearby neighborhoods?
7. Will residents of the development be able to walk or bike within ten minutes to a large park or significant green space? Is the town planning a new large park or preserving more public green space near rapidly developing areas so all areas of Chapel Hill have similar access to parks and green space? Are biking and walking trails part of the development and are they planned to be connected into wider networks? And what about connection to shopping and schools?
8. Does the development fit in with the character of the area and neighborhood in which it is proposed?
9. Will bus service, sidewalks/walking paths, greenway connections all be easily available to residents in the development?
10. How will the development impact traffic and are we requiring and planning enough new road improvements to handle the increase in traffic?
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?
Orange County, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro have already decided that a substantial portion of the forested public Greene Tract property be developed and the discussion so far has centered on affordable housing as a primary public purpose of this development, in keeping with the land’s status as public land. While a portion has been set aside for “preservation,” the current ordinances allow roads, retention ponds, utility corridors, and other development in the “preserved” area. With new large proposed developments like the St Paul AME project in the area, it is increasingly important that discussion about any preservation takes place in concert with how the area is developed so that residents can have the same access to green space and parks enjoyed by other already developed areas of Chapel Hill.
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?
I’d like to hold listening sessions/town halls with the full Council in multiple communities in town not to necessarily discuss specific projects but rather to hear from community members what they are thinking about town issues, development, and how we can better respond to their needs and goals for the community. Getting out of town hall is a key part of that process. I also would like to make Council meetings easier to attend, not stack controversial issues at the end of four-hour late-night Council meetings, and make better use of technology to enable more instant polling and responses so people watching the meetings can more easily let us know their feelings about specific issues. I am also a proponent of providing funding that will allow folks with child care needs, the need for time off work, and other issues to also participate in our meetings.
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?
I have covered this topic extensively in questions above regarding housing. That said, as the University continues to grow this will become increasingly important – we have to work together on everything from dealing with finally ending coal use at UNC’s steam plant downtown to figuring out how our rapid transit bus lines relate to UNC employee needs along with student transportation. Finally, I strongly support our efforts with UNC currently to create our new Innovation hub and office/lab space and want to continue those relationships.
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