Orange County

Carrboro will elect 3 aldermen. Here’s what the 5 candidates said about key issues.

Carrboro voters will choose from five candidates in the Nov. 5 election to fill three seats on the Board of Aldermen.

Mayor Lydia Lavelle is running unopposed for her fourth term.

Alderwoman Bethany Chaney will step down in December after serving five years in office.

Incumbent Aldermen Damon Seils and Sammy Slade are facing three challengers: Matthew Clements, Susan Romaine and Steve Friedman. Early voting begins Wednesday, Oct. 16.

Get more details about each candidate at tinyurl.com/y6enlfd9. Here’s what we recently asked the Lavelle and the five candidates for alderman:

Development

What future do you see for the town’s Northern Transition Area?

Matthew Clements: Reasonable development based on the Northern Transition Area Advisory Committee’s advice. That area is shared in planning with Chapel Hill in the unincorporated area of Orange County. The Zinn property should be considered for an ecological assessment along with the current requirement for environmental and stormwater studies in order to have all of the information for the town, community and developers to come to a consensus on whether to move forward with a flexible zoning and incorporation into Carrboro.

Steve Friedman: I would like to see the Northern Transition Area remain largely undeveloped. My vision for Carrboro is that development and density should continue downtown and expand out from there with the goal of preserving our natural resources. I look at Boulder, Colorado, and the buffer that they use as a paradigm for Carrboro and how we can control urban sprawl. Should development become necessary, I would advocate for a mixed-use plan that incorporates affordable housing, green space, and that the use of impervious surfaces is minimized in order to reduce the effect of water runoff.

Susan Romaine: I had envisioned mixed-use development in this area, dense enough to support transit and generating much-needed revenue for the town. But now, it appears Duke University will purchase property slated for the 27-acre development as it abuts Duke Forest, used for teaching and research, and includes part of the Meadow Flats natural heritage site. I don’t foresee any other land in the transition area developed during the next four-year term of an alderman.

Damon Seils: The transition areas should continue their transition from rural to urban character, consistent with the Joint Planning Land Use Plan. The small area plan for the Northern Study Area offers useful guidance for how that transition can occur consistent with our values of promoting sustainability and affordability, connecting neighborhoods, and conserving important ecological and historical features. In general, we should concentrate development along transportation corridors in a way that is compact, walkable, and transit-oriented.

Sammy Slade: As the last areas for the town to grow, we need to be wiser in the kind of development that we allow. We need to treat the Northern Transition areas as the scarce resource that they are. Before Transition Area II opens for development, we need to take stock of lessons learned from Transition Area I. Building up, high density, mixed use, transit friendly and all healthily integrated and balanced with nature.

Government

What is the town’s biggest challenge? What is your suggestion for tackling it?

Matthew Clements: Parking. We need to find a way to bring all the shareholders — business, university, town and residents — together to maximize the use of the limited resource of parking. Empty parking spaces do not create tax revenues. Conflict between shareholders hurts the image of the town and the lot owners.

Steve Friedman: Engaging all of the residents in a truly participatory government. In a town the size of Carrboro, we should have more people running for office, speaking at Board of Aldermen meetings, and participating in the planning of our town. I think a coordinated communication effort to the residents using readily available software will help to provide targeted information to the community and provide them the opportunity to contribute to the future of our town.

Susan Romaine: Carrboro’s biggest challenge is building its commercial tax base in order to take pressure off homeowners. This begins with an incubator (like LAUNCH) and more shared workspace (like PERCH) offering affordability for start-ups. We also need to explore more business development in infills in keeping with the character and scale of downtown. Finally, I support a comprehensive, dynamically priced parking plan to encourage business development as well as connectivity for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit.

Damon Seils: Systemic racial inequities are implicated in every challenge we face: housing affordability and homelessness, land use and transportation planning, climate action, economic opportunity. We need every local government in Orange County to formally engage in racial equity work, from training leaders and staff in a common racial equity analysis, to implementing racial equity tool kits in decision making, to measuring outcomes and sharing lessons with each other. This is a project for the long haul.

Sammy Slade: The town’s biggest challenge is also the world’s biggest challenge: addressing the climate emergency. To tackle it, we need to fund and implement both our Municipal and our Community Climate Action Plans within the next 10 years. If we do not have state and federal partners, the burden will be that much bigger on localities. Hopefully, gerrymandering in NC will be fixed, the Senate will flip and the climate emergency presidential candidate gets elected.

What role do you think advisory board recommendations should play in local decisions?

Matthew Clements: I think advisory boards are a critical resource for input on local decisions. However, the ability of all residents to serve on a board and provide input is not equal because of work and family constraints.

Steve Friedman: The advisory boards play an important role as they are often comprised of residents who are expert in their field or passionate about a topic. Oftentimes they have more practical knowledge than the board members, and therefore their input should be weighed heavily in the decision-making process. Additionally, if we are to make our government more inclusive of the residents, allowing them to have a hand in the process is critical.

Susan Romaine: Carrboro’s 18 active advisory boards are comprised of independent-minded citizens bringing fresh eyes and unique perspectives to a variety of issues facing the Board of Aldermen. Their recommendations should play an important role in the board’s decision-making, especially because of the socioeconomic and geographic diversity they bring to the mix. That said, there are times when advisory boards may need to be reined in, to ensure personal agendas are not roadblocks to progress.

Damon Seils: As someone who served on and chaired Carrboro and county advisory boards for several years before being elected as an alderperson, I take seriously the work of the advisory boards and the importance of considering their recommendations and feedback. Advisory board recommendations have been invaluable in shaping and implementing everything from new development projects to the town’s affordable housing and climate action strategies.

Sammy Slade: Advisory board recommendations are an essential part of the decision-making process. The Board of Aldermen makes decisions on many issues. Without advisory board input, those decision would be made with less depth and breadth in thinking.

Environment

Is the town doing enough about climate change?

Matthew Clements: Yes. Our focus on green programs and reducing carbon emissions is commendable. One town’s programs will not solve the global issue with man-made influences on climate change no matter what the investment.

Steve Friedman: I believe our town is very much concerned about climate change and the role that our community can play in combating its effects. Is there more we could do ... absolutely, but I do believe we are on the right path. Additional initiatives I would like to see involve eliminating single-use plastics, encouraging cleaner transportation, and providing resources for renewable energy for the residents.

Susan Romaine: Yes and no. The town is ramping up climate change actions with LED lighting, weatherization, composting, charging stations, and alternative/renewable energy. Yet by far the biggest impact in reducing greenhouse emissions comes from getting people out of cars. That begins with smart land use featuring compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that are bikeable/walkable and supported by transit. We also need to mitigate the current effects of climate change with more resources devoted to stormwater management.

Damon Seils: Carrboro’s plan seeks a 50% reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Town staff and advisory boards are updating the goals based on the latest science using a climate justice framework. Progress in municipal operations includes conversion to LED streetlights, energy efficiency upgrades to town buildings, and town vehicle replacement. Community-level efforts are currently focused on composting and organics collection, invasive species removal, and regional partnerships. There is much more to do.

Sammy Slade: No. While we have done more then most communities in terms of plans and goals, and projects that we have pursued/implemented, because of the timing, scale and scope that is called for by the science and climate justice, we have not done enough. I am seeking re-election to see through the budgeting and implementation of our climate action plans for us to do our part with action within the narrowing window of time.

Is enough being done to balance housing and commercial development with environmental protection, including the preservation of trees and wetlands?

Matthew Clements: Yes. I believe our political process and zoning has a fine balance between balancing the common good with the property rights of the individual.

Steve Friedman: I think that the board is quite contemplative when presented with new development plans and does truly consider the options to maintain that balance. There are some instances where development necessitates the removal of trees, but it should not be enabled where there are delicate ecosystems like wetlands and streams. To accommodate our impending growth, we should look to encourage denser development where commerce and residential structures already exist.

Susan Romaine: The true test of this comes with the development of the Greene Tract, with its hardwood forests, wetlands, and critical wildlife. The 164-acre tract is jointly owned by Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County, which also makes it ideally suited for affordable housing since the land comes at no cost. On land that is developed in the Greene Tract, I would advocate for green space, replanting of trees, stormwater management, transit, and solar panel installation.

Damon Seils: Carrboro has strong regulatory standards for water quality and other environmental protections. Yet, too many of the town’s zoning districts and other land-use regulations promote an outdated, suburban mode of development. Environmentally responsible development is development that is compact, walkable, and transit-oriented and includes a diversity of housing types and commercial opportunities. I am hopeful that the town’s upcoming community-driven comprehensive planning process will emphasize these values.

Sammy Slade: No, there is room for improvement. While the rural buffer is a huge accomplishment that safeguards a lot of nature that is contiguous to Carrboro, within Carrboro we can do better. For example, the recent experience with the Flex Zoning process has brought to light how the town Land Use Ordinance (LUO) does not register some natural features that are rare and must also be protected. Improvements can happen through the upcoming comprehensive planning process.

Property taxes

Would you vote for a tax increase?

Matthew Clements: No. The median tax rate for assessed property in Carrboro is the top three in the state. We need to help diversify the tax base to reduce the burden on homeowners. We need to reduce the regulatory burden on local businesses to help provide for a vibrant local business economy.

Steve Friedman: We recently had a tax increase to pay for affordable housing, but we are the most heavily taxed town in the state. Instead, I would propose to build our business community and develop more of a commercial tax base instead of putting that additional strain on the residents. A vibrant downtown with a diverse set of businesses will help us to develop a sustainable ecosystem, not be reliant on the restaurant and retail establishments, and increase the taxes paid to our town.

Susan Romaine: To be fiscally responsible, yes. Other than a half-penny increase in the property tax earmarked for affordable housing, there has not been a tax hike in Carrboro since 2009. The town has held the line on hiring new employees during this time. Meanwhile, pressures mount on the spending side of the budget from population growth, stormwater, aging of town facilities, transit, and double-digit annual increases in health insurance premiums. Something’s gotta give!

Damon Seils: I support completing the town’s plan, now in its second year, to raise the property tax rate by 1.5 cents over three years and to dedicate that revenue to the town’s Affordable Housing Special Revenue Fund.

Sammy Slade: Yes. Ideally we accomplish everything without raising taxes. Some upcoming costs that may cause town staff to request that the Board of Aldermen raise taxes include:

Half-cent for the third year in a row for affordable housing efforts.

New planning staff.

Town offices and associated parking

A year by year, 10-year climate emergency budget plan

If it comes down to needing to choose, my priority is budgeting for the climate emergency.

Housing

Do you think the town’s efforts to keep and maintain affordable housing are working?

Matthew Clements:Absolutely not. The town has received funds from developers and passed bonds for affordable housing but it has not addressed the issue of limited availability of affordable housing. Town planning needs to consider options to incentive development of high-quality, durable yet frugal apartments, townhouses and condominiums to decrease the cost and increase the availability of privately built and managed housing.

Steve Friedman: I think that the town’s efforts have been admirable and asking the residents of our community to pay a 1.5% tax to enable the funding of affordable housing is a good strategy. The town is also on track to meet its affordable housing goals. I do think that there are additional initiatives that can be taken to address this issue, including promoting increased wages, acquiring privately held land, and increasing developer incentives.

Susan Romaine: Carrboro is doing its best, but it is still just a finger in the dyke. The need for affordable housing far outstrips our ability to build it, even with significant contributions from our Affordable Housing Fund and community partners such as CASA and Community Home Trust. Some small steps forward include more funding for a comprehensive repair program allowing residents to stay safely in their homes, and a pilot master leasing program offering subsidized rent.

Damon Seils: Dedicating the recent property tax increase to affordable housing enables us to add new affordable units and maintain existing affordable units. A recent staff report indicates we are on the way to our goal of creating 85 affordable-ownership homes and 470 affordable-rental homes by 2024; and the challenge remains and is growing. I am particularly interested in finding ways for the town and local partners to fill gaps identified in our homelessness system gaps analysis.

Sammy Slade: Yes. The tax increase of 1.5 cents for sustained funding to implement our affordable housing plan is essential. We have added 27 affordable home owned units; preserved 10 home owned units; created 21 rental units; and preserved 61 rental units since the plan has been started. Even so, the need is larger then our capacity. Having state and federal partners could augment our efforts significantly.

Traffic, bikes, pedestrians

Is the town doing enough to address bike and pedestrian safety and connectivity?

Matthew Clements:Yes, however, pedestrian safety measures need to continue to be improved — ensuring continual sidewalks on thoroughfares throughout Carrboro along with assessing pedestrian safety. Additionally the town needs to have staff and funds ready for winter weather snow removal from sidewalks. Our bike path and lanes have excellent connections for ingress and egress to campus the the town and need to be properly maintained.

Steve Friedman: I think the town is certainly focused on it. I would like to see continued effort to make our town more walkable by connecting the neighborhoods with sidewalks. I also support bike connectivity but not at the expense of damaging existing trees and forests. I support protected bike lanes and safer streets for both pedestrians and bikes.

Susan Romaine: When looking at bicycle commuters, Carrboro ranks No. 1 in North Carolina and No. 3 in the Southeast. Clearly, we are investing wisely in connectivity as part of our climate action plan. Some additional investments that I would support include: more separated space along busy corridors such as East Main and North and South Greensboro; improved bicycle facilities along Old 86 to rural Orange County; and added safety through greenways, trails, shared use paths, and bike boulevards.

Damon Seils: With the completion of the Rogers Road sidewalk and the Homestead-Chapel Hill High School Multi-use Path, it’s time to get excited about the upcoming sidewalk on South Greensboro Street and the segment of the Jones Creek Greenway connecting Lake Hogan Farms to Morris Grove Elementary School. There is more to do, including updating the town’s bike plan, improving safety on East Main Street for pedestrians and cyclists, and identifying funds to repair downtown sidewalks.

Sammy Slade: Given where we need to be with the climate emergency, no, the town is not doing enough. We are doing a lot though: Updating our bicycle plan, pursuing Gold Bicycle Friendly Community status, addressing identified pedestrian needs including pursuing crosswalks along North Greensboro Street, the new sidewalk along Rogers Road and South Greensboro Street. The bike plan that we are updating from included greenways as a major opportunity, the updated plan must include them also.

Should the town charge for public parking?

Matthew Clements: No. If paid parking needs to be instituted in a specific manned lot, we should work with residents and businesses for vouchers, tokens or redemption. Carrboro has an advantage over the regional competitors for our restaurants and businesses and should not squander that chasing after a “revenue neutral” plan of meter-people harassing and ticketing guests.

Steve Friedman: There is a study being conducted now that will help to answer that question. As a pro-business candidate, I am reticent to implement paid parking as it will have a negative effect on businesses. I would like to see what full enforcement of our parking laws would do and enforce strict time limits on parking in town. However, we should wait to make a final judgment until we have the data and then base our decision on that.

Susan Romaine: Yes, I support dynamically priced parking based on demand. For example, parking on Saturday at 7 a.m. is free; parking on Saturday at 7 p.m. is more than average. Dynamic pricing offers a gentle transition to paid parking (you can still park for free if you go at the right time); adds revenue to town coffers; and addresses merchants’ concerns about college students leaving cars in free lots all day, while studying on campus.

Damon Seils: That will depend on an upcoming study of parking enforcement and paid parking. The plan adopted in 2017 calls for enforcement of parking rules as one approach to better manage existing parking supply. Pricing is another possibility for achieving this goal. I would like to first understand the effects of better enforcement. In any case, if the town builds a parking deck (currently being debated), there will be little choice but to charge for parking.

Sammy Slade: The town already charges for parking. We charge for parking in the same way that we charge for busing: though our taxes. If we are to provide infrastructure at all for housing cars in the downtown, public money should be minimized. Instead public money needs to be focused on the climate emergency. That requires a massive quantity of resources for transforming everything, including how we access our downtown.

Mayor Lydia Lavelle

What future do you see for the town’s Northern Transition Area?

I believe we should add appropriate residential and commercial development clustered on transportation corridors in northern Carrboro. If we determine this is how we want Carrboro to grow, we will need to include this in our new Comprehensive Plan, which will be developed over the coming years. To make this possible, we will need to plan and budget for transit service, bike lanes, and greenways in this area of town.

Would you vote for a tax increase?

Our board discussed supporting a three-year, half-cent per year tax increase (for a total increase of one-and-a-half cents) to create a continuing program allocation for our affordable housing fund. Our board approved these tax increases the past two years. Fiscal year 2020-2021 will be the third year of that commitment, and I will support this.

Do you think the town’s efforts to keep and maintain affordable housing are working?

Carrboro’s Affordable Housing Plan contains many strategies; we are tracking progress. For example, our 2024 goal is to have 85 affordable ownership homes; by July 2019, there were 70 permanently affordable homeownership units. Our 2024 goal is to have 470 affordable rental units; by July 2019, there were 370 permanently affordable rental units. Providing critical repair funding has allowed people to stay in their affordable homes. We have also helped with rental/utility deposits. Encouraging, and work continues.

Is the town doing enough to address bike and pedestrian safety and connectivity?

We are continually working on this. For one, in order to keep our town safe for bikers and walkers, we need to continually assess and upgrade our infrastructure. We are currently in the process of updating our Bicycle Master Plan; our priorities will be to enhance safety and improve cyclist ability to move around town and through intersections. Also, we are currently assessing our sidewalks in order to prioritize repairs.

Should the town charge for public parking?

Carrboro operates 16% of the parking spaces in town, and does not charge or enforce for parking. 84% of the parking spaces in town are privately owned and underutilized. Our staff has tried unsuccessfully to create partnerships to open up this private parking. Many (including our Carrboro Business Alliance) feel we need to build a parking deck. If we do, it will be necessary to charge for town parking and enforce parking rules throughout town.

Is the town doing enough about climate change?

Carrboro has climate action plans for municipal operations (ECPP) and for the community (CCAP). The ECPP concentrates on lowering municipal greenhouse gas emissions and the CCAP establishes a 50% reduction goal in per capita greenhouse emissions by 2025. Our Environmental Advisory Board is examining an update to this goal using current data and a climate equity lens. We receive a monthly report on progress toward our goals, and we are making slow but steady progress.

What role do you think advisory board recommendations should play in local decisions?

Carrboro’s advisory boards play a critical role in providing recommendations to the Board of Aldermen, particularly in technical areas where the expertise of advisory board members is beneficial. However, the ultimate decision makers are the elected board members. BOA members consider and value the recommendations of all of the advisory boards, but need to balance those recommendations, and make their decisions in the overall best interest of the town.

Is enough being done to balance housing and commercial development with environmental protection, including the preservation of trees and wetlands?

Carrboro has strict requirements for open space and stream buffers. Our fairly strong tree ordinance is under review. We have supported the region’s rural buffer. Carrboro is also projected as one of the slowest growing towns in our region in the coming decades. These realities combine to increase our residential tax burden. Therefore, our Board has made a concerted effort toward encouraging commercial projects, particularly those that generate sales tax. Balancing these priorities is essential.

What is the town’s biggest challenge? What is your suggestion for tackling it?

Most immediately the 203 Project, which will house the Orange County Southern Library. We had to re-boot this project after the ArtsCenter pulled out earlier this year. We are also working to establish a parking plan for the various uses that will be in the building, as well as the 100 spaces the project will displace. We need to continue to work closely with Orange County to make this project come to fruition.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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