Orange County

Mayor Tom Stevens gives annual Hillsborough State of the Town Address

Mayor Tom Stevens touches on the ways Hillsborough rocks during his 11th annual State of the Town Address at the Whitted Human Services Center.
Mayor Tom Stevens touches on the ways Hillsborough rocks during his 11th annual State of the Town Address at the Whitted Human Services Center.

Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens made it known that Hillsborough rocks when he whipped off his blazer to reveal a t-shirt with the now-familiar hashtag at the start of his 11th annual State of the Town Address this week.

“How could I not wear this t-shirt?” he asked the crowd that grew to nearly 90 in the meeting room of the Whitted Human Services Center.

Throughout the evening, the mayor touched on the ways Hillsborough rocks — a sentiment started by the Police Department’s social media videos — and discussed small-town character and the people who create that character. Stevens noted that small-town character is less about the size of the town but more about what Hillsborough’s people do with what they have.

“We can build it so it looks like a town and create places to give it a sense of place,” Stevens said near the end of his address, “but we know what really makes small-town character and that’s you, folks — that’s the people. The character of small towns is really the characters of small towns.”

A welcoming aspiration

As part of a four-part game plan for keeping Hillsborough’s small-town character, the mayor noted that people in Hillsborough can do their part by welcoming new people and getting them involved in participating in local government, nonprofits, and the community. Population projections show great growth in the Triangle region through 2050. But by letting people know what Hillsborough is about, we attract the people who want to live the small town lifestyle, Stevens said.

Earlier in the address, the mayor noted what Hillsborough is and isn’t, as he recounted divisions experienced in the past year between people in town, across the state and nationally, noting the burning of rainbow flags at a local church and the attack on the Orange County Republican Party headquarters. “I’m certainly concerned and I know many people here are concerned about our state and federal institutions that are struggling to just even function because of the polarized divisions we have,” he said.

Yet weathering times of deep division is part of Hillsborough’s history and character, he said, citing the Regulator Movement, the revolutionary and civil wars and the fight for civil rights among examples.

“One of the things that I trust we have learned is that there are some things we are not going to tolerate, and that is white nationalism, white supremacy, KKK. That has no home here,” the mayor said. “We condemn the firebombing or any kind of political violence and deplore just dismissing people because of your particular political persuasion.”

He added, “We need to listen to all voices — liberal and conservative and everything in between in this community. In fact, we condemn bullying and intimidation of all sorts and particularly when it’s targeted to certain groups because of faith, because of sexuality, or their cultural and ethnic background.”

The aspiration for Hillsborough, he said, is a place where all people feel safe and at home, a place where all people are welcome and welcomed, and a place where everyone has the opportunity to be engaged and included “regardless of where you come from or who you love or who you marry or what you look like.”

“I hope that collectively what we aspire to do in this time in history, the role that we will play, is an example of what is best and right in small-town America,” Stevens said. While the Town of Hillsborough’s staff and leaders cover a wide spectrum of personal views, we are here to serve all people in town and to run the town government accordingly, he said. “This is one Hillsborough. We are here for everybody. This is our aspiration,” he said, drawing applause.

Small-town strategy

“Welcome and bring new folks on board” is one step of the strategy the mayor outlined for ensuring Hillsborough still feels small into the future. The other steps are to:

▪  Deal with the real

▪  Make and follow a plan

▪  Build it “town-like”

Deal with the real — As part of the Triangle, Hillsborough does face growth pressure but the town’s growth will be constrained to about 12,000 to 13,000 people (about double its current size) due to its limited water supply, its roads and its land. Some of Hillsborough’s roads were laid out 250 years ago and have no easy engineering fix to allow more traffic. The town’s water supply, which limits growth more severely than roads and land, is examined closely to ensure any proposed growth could be handled even in an extended, severe drought. While the rate of growth in the town is faster paced now, the town’s growth constraints will make Hillsborough the slowest growing municipality in the Triangle over the long term. For the past 40 years, the town has grown at a rate of about 1,000 people every decade. It now has 840 residences approved and under construction and another 1,203 approved but not yet under construction.

Make and follow a plan — The town created a strategic growth plan about 10 years ago that steers development to the town’s core to help reduce through traffic in town and to provide more opportunities for people to live, work and play in Hillsborough’s districts without necessarily relying on a vehicle. Commissioners have turned down a number of developments proposed on the outskirts of town because development there does not meet Hillsborough’s goals for infill development. Yet to continue to attract the development Hillsborough wants, the mayor noted, town leaders must maintain their credibility and approve proposals that meet the goals they outline. He noted Elfin’s Pond, a townhouse community now being built at Orange Grove and Eno Mountain roads, as an example of a proposal that the Board of Commissioners initially rejected when the developer first proposed it north of town where commercial development is preferred.

Build it “town-like” — The town’s Unified Development Ordinance outlines requirements for development, including what streets look like, the amenities provided and a ensuring variety of housing stock.

Welcome and bring new folks on board — The mayor acknowledged that it’s easier said than done to ensure people feel welcome and included, but it’s something every person can work to do and something for which the town has a good track record. He noted he always hears from people that Hillsborough is a friendly town.

“Hillsborough rocks. You rock,” he said in ending his address.

Other items

The mayor also delivered a review of the past year and a look at what’s ahead. Some of the items ahead are:

Churton Street Access Improvements Project — Construction is expected to start April 17 in the downtown area and will include widening of sidewalks as well as installation of bus pullouts, handicap accessible ramps and a crosswalk by the Gateway Center, which houses Weaver Street Market. Construction could take six to eight months; however, businesses will remain open and access will be provided. The mayor encouraged citizens to keep supporting downtown businesses during the project.

Accessory dwellings proposal — A proposed amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance would make building accessory dwellings easier, which is expected to help create smaller and more affordable places to live. The mayor noted that input from citizens is needed. An online survey is available through 5 p.m. April 18. Citizens also are encourage to attend the joint public hearing of the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners and Planning Board at 7 p.m. April 20 in the Town Barn, 101 E. Orange St. For more information, see the news release.

Infrastructure — Projects to take care of and improve the town’s infrastructure will include an expansion of the West Fork Eno Reservoir, to be completed by the end of 2018; an expansion of the Water Treatment Plant; and a planned expansion of the Town Hall Campus, to include building a new meeting room space. The town will continue to annually repave a portion of town streets and replace aging water and sewer lines. The town also is exploring the possibility of creating a fiber network to connect all town facilities and to attract high-speed Internet service to town.

Community projects — The Hillsborough Parks and Recreation Board is examining possible changes to the development ordinance to provide greater recreation opportunities in town. The town also will continue to work with the Hillsborough Arts Council to provide more public art, tourism and economic development opportunities in town. Pollinator-friendly initiatives will be seen at parks and the West King Street parking lot garden. New Welcome to Hillsborough banners are along Churton Street and U.S. 70.

T-shirts — The Police Department still has #HillsboroughRocks t-shirts available for sale at the main station, 127 N. Churton St. The shirts are $12 each and will fund sending children to camp. For more information, contact the Community Services Unit commander at 919-296-9522.