Orange County

Town Council incumbents, challengers share their visions for developing Chapel Hill

Early voting begins Thursday, Oct. 19, for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board and municipal races in Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Early voting begins Thursday, Oct. 19, for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board and municipal races in Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7. File photo

Concerns about Chapel Hill’s direction on development was critical in unseating a longtime mayor in 2015 and remains a central issue to this year’s Town Council race.

Incumbent members Ed Harrison and Maria Palmer are facing five challengers in the race for four council seats. At least two of the challengers – either Allen Buansi, Hongbin Gu, Rachel Schaevitz, Carl Schuler or Karen Stegman – are guaranteed a seat in December, since Council members George Cianciolo and Sally Greene decided against running for another term.

Early voting for the Nov. 7 municipal and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board races is already underway.

This year’s council candidates had this to say when asked about the kind of development they would support:

Allen Buansi: My approach to development starts with an open mind and thinking about whether a given development proposal would serve a need. One critical issue is lessening the tax burden on homeowners. Presently, around 80 percent of our town’s revenue is generated from residential property taxes. In part, as a result, many families, especially those from the Northside (neighborhood near downtown), are moving out of Chapel Hill.

We can help ease this burden by diversifying our tax base to increase the number of commercial spaces and properties. Measures like the Enterprise Zoning District, approved by the Town Council in April, are encouraging.

I do not have a blanket approach for development, but I do want to make sure that the process is transparent, welcomes the input of adversely affected communities, and is environmentally responsible. Ultimately, the public and the aforementioned considerations (affordable housing, tax burden) should inform our height limits.

Hongbin Gu: Chapel Hill needs an economic development profile that is balanced and diverse. In particular, I believe that Chapel Hill should utilize UNC as an economic engine: connect the university with local economic development and make sure it’s part of the sustainable, inclusionary economic plan. The tech ecosystem only happens when both sides communicate and collaborate. We should further our downtown revitalization plan with a concerted efforts to turn the area into the center for commerce and entertainment for the town with higher-density buildings. We will have a balanced profile for development, including the new light industrial zone in the north. It will be visionary for the town to create an innovation center with incubator and shared work spaces to attract start-ups and high-tech companies to the area.

Ed Harrison: My priorities would be: (A) non-residential (1) office and retail in areas that already have the appropriate zoning, and (2) Enterprise Zone development (startups, light manufacturing) in the Eubanks Road area under consideration; and (B) affordable residential in the form of relatively small-scale apartments and small single-family homes

I’m the single remaining council member who voted against rezoning the majority of the Ephesus-Fordham (Blue Hill) district to mostly “WX-7” zoning. This means I didn’t vote for the largest new building in that district. The “mass” of the building, as much as the height, is what many find objectionable. I have voted for “tall” buildings on Franklin and Rosemary streets, to give us a 52-week, 24-hour downtown with more adult residents; somewhere, our economy needs that.

Maria Palmer: Some folks have cast this election as a fight between those who love our town’s charm and want to protect nature and those who want new development and growth. I think this is a FALSE dichotomy. An example of doing both is Obey Creek. We have a beautiful 80-acre preserve, commercial and office space, amenities, affordable housing and an iconic bridge coming to us, enhancing the diversity of housing stock and contributing to our quality of life. We need to put tall, mixed-used development near commercial and transit hubs. We need to develop the Blue Hill (Ephesus-Fordham) District and our light rail station areas, as well as the northern edge of town.

Without the town’s charm – beautiful trees and parks, trails and old neighborhoods – I wouldn’t want to live in Chapel Hill. But without businesses to contribute to the tax base and provide jobs, we will become a retirement community for rich people, and that would also change the character of Chapel Hill for the worse. New development that supports our social, environmental and economic priorities is what we need.

Rachel Schaevitz: I support development that adds affordable and moderately-priced housing to our community, features energy-efficient green construction, prioritizes public green space and connectivity with bike and pedestrian paths, includes office or retail space for businesses, and helps rebalance our tax base. Our rural buffer encourages density up rather than sprawl out. This can be achieved with taller buildings in ways that are not at odds with our values. Our residents want these buildings to be attractive and include setbacks and other architectural features so they appear less hulking. The issue is not “do we build up or not?”; it is to ensure that what we build gets us closer to our goals of connectivity, placemaking and economic vibrancy.

Carl Schuler: The town needs smart development to accommodate the dynamic community and future growth of Chapel Hill. Denser growth is key, and it also must adhere to the spirit of the Chapel Hill 2020 process, including walkability and green space features. Location, height and density issues are part of a fluid process that is currently in review. For example, recent construction of market-rate residential rental units and store fronts along Elliott Road has given pause to the form-based code process utilized by the Community Design Commission. Revisions to the existing Land Use Management Ordinance, to better guide the current form-based code process.

Karen Stegman: Land use and transit policy are at the core of providing truly responsible development. One of the most important roles of the council is guiding the decision-making around how Chapel Hill develops – and redevelops – the limited land it has. These decision-making processes should be guided by the following principles: 1) Emphasize smart growth principles that strive to minimize human impact on the environment; in particular, encourage density in the roughly 20 percent of our land area where we, as a community, have agreed that density is appropriate. In addition, we should prioritize development outside of our flood zones and ensure responsible stormwater planning and sufficient infrastructure as the town continues to grow. 2) Prioritize preservation of existing neighborhoods. 3) Increase bike and pedestrian connectivity and align these routes with implementation of the town’s comprehensive transportation plan, including continued support of our fare-free bus service and the addition of Bus Rapid Transit. 4) Align development with current and future transit routes.

The stations along the light rail line will also provide important development opportunities for Chapel Hill. I envision rich pockets of dense, vibrant development where residents can work, shop, live, dine, re-create and enjoy art all without the use of an automobile – a future that will allow our local businesses to thrive and help Chapel Hill residents live healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. These aims must be coupled with our commitment to affordable housing. As the value of land along the corridor begins to rise, we must enact policies that ensure that new development provides benefits to everyone in our community.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Early Voting information

One-Stop Early voting in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough municipal races and in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board election has begun and continues through Saturday, Nov. 4. The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Eligible citizens can register and vote during the early voting period with an approved identification, such as a bank statement, drivers license or utility bill, showing their name and current address.

All early voting sites will close at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 31. Otherwise, the following polls will be open:

▪ Board of Elections, 208 S. Cameron St., Hillsborough

Thursday-Friday, Oct. 19-20, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.,

Monday-Friday, Oct. 23-27 and Oct. 30-Nov. 3, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturdays, Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

▪ Carrboro Town Hall, 301 W. Main St., Carrboro

Monday-Friday, Oct. 23-27 and Oct. 30-Nov. 3, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturdays, Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

▪ Chapel of the Cross, 304 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

Monday-Friday, Oct. 23-27 and Oct. 30-Nov. 3, noon to 7 p.m.

Not open Saturday, Oct. 28, because of UNC football game

Saturday, Nov. 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

▪ Seymour Senior Center, 2551 Homestead Road, Chapel Hill

Monday-Friday, Oct. 23-27 and Oct. 30-Nov. 3, noon to 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 28, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.