We Need a New Community-first Vision for Chapel Hill
To start with, my campaign for Chapel Hill Mayor does not coordinate with, take contributions from, or otherwise work with PACs or 501(c)4 dark money groups — full stop.
Here are the reasons I got into this campaign: Listening to residents on issues like the controversial single family zoning changes, saving local businesses like the Purple Bowl restaurant, and creating more parks and green space along with responsible development.
We need a Mayor and Town Council that listens to residents — you and me and all our neighbors — instead of consistently ignoring community concerns. Right now, our Council routinely ignores the will of residents, whether it’s eliminating single-family zoning restrictions, failing to clean up our toxic coal ash dump before we build on it, greenlighting the construction of massive apartment buildings surrounded only by parking lots, or failing to build or even maintain basic park amenities residents of other towns our size routinely take for granted.
We need a Chapel Hill that makes our amazing parks, green spaces and love of the outdoors as valuable to our community as housing development. This shouldn’t be an “either/or”! In just one example, I believe we should immediately divert the several million dollars we have been spending on out-of-town development consultants to building a real adaptive playground, splash pad, modern skate park and ball-court expansion and making much-needed repairs.
Public parks, green spaces and our amazing outdoors should also be accessible to all, regardless of income, neighborhood or ability to get around. Residents shouldn’t have to go to Cary to access an adaptive playground or Pittsboro to take the kids to a splashpad or to Lexington for a decent concrete skate park or Hillsborough for a walk in the woods. You shouldn’t have to have a car — or spend hours in one — to access great public parks and open spaces. Right now, many of our residents can’t walk 15 minutes to a beautiful public park or green space. We shouldn’t just reserve those amenities for our wealthiest neighborhoods.
We need more affordable housing options, such as for-sale townhomes and affordable rental units, and we can work with UNC, our town’s largest employer, to make this happen on a bigger scale. We need more visitors and more local businesses, especially downtown, and shouldn’t promote glass skyscrapers built by out-of-town developers at the expense of beloved neighborhood establishments like the Purple Bowl Restaurant.
Communities around the country from Bentonville, Arkansas, to Old Fort, North Carolina, are capitalizing on the booming outdoor recreation industry by prioritizing equitable usage and community collaboration. They are reviving businesses, connecting underserved neighborhoods and bringing in visitors. We have green spaces, forests and outdoor opportunities here as well, and with just a little investment we can do the same.
When my fellow Town Council members proposed eliminating single family zoning restrictions in Chapel Hill, I investigated the problem, finding data showing such changes only increase housing options for wealthy residents but don’t make housing more affordable or accessible for middle and lower income community members – a fact our own town staff has confirmed. In addition, our town staff has explained that under state law this change would only apply to certain neighborhoods consisting mostly of either older and more modest homes or those in our historic districts. How can I support a change that wouldn’t even apply to my neighborhood or the neighborhoods of a majority of town council members? I’ve opposed this measure from the start and if elected, I commit to immediately reversing our vote approving this change. We need more affordable housing, not more luxury projects. We need more townhomes, downtown apartments, and parks — you can read about my views on development here.
Coal Ash Dump
As a public health lawyer, I was appalled to learn about our town’s plans to build family housing on top of our town’s coal ash/garbage dump under our police station — without completely removing the dangerous coal ash. I led the charge to delay that plan. Now we want to locate a new town staff building there and still haven’t ruled out building family housing before total ash removal. I will not support this.
Affordable housing is a critical need in our community and during the past year alone I’ve supported investing over $9 million in taxpayer dollars to help build multiple affordable housing projects with hundreds of units, including Trinity Court, the Community Home Trust, Habitat for Humanity’s Weaver’s Grove, and many more. In fact, I am not aware of any other community our size in North Carolina building more affordable housing than Chapel Hill. However, I’ve drawn the line on building housing — even affordable housing — on top of preserved forest and open space purchased by voter-approved environmental bonds and on top of informal Legion Park. I believe every single resident of Chapel Hill, regardless of their neighborhood, their income, or whether their home is a small apartment or a large house, should be able to walk within 15 minutes to a great park or beautiful forest and open space. We have to remember that many people in our community do not have a car. So when we build housing of any type, we need to build great parks too. Many exciting efforts around the country are aimed at addressing this historical lack of access to parks and green space for underserved communities and neighborhoods and we can do the same. This is especially true in the area of town around informal Legion Park where thousands of apartments and townhomes are being proposed and built. We need to be expanding Legion Park to ensure equitable access so people in that area of Chapel Hill have the same parks opportunities other areas already enjoy with much larger parks and green space.
Our town budget is a mess. This year’s budget raises your property taxes almost 10%, one of the largest increases in town history (I actually haven’t yet found another time we raised our property taxes more than this, but let me know if you do!). And this at the same time we are spending on such discretionary items as million-dollar out-of-town consultants to rewrite development rules and construction mistakes in our town parking garage that have put it $9 million over budget. And instead of buying new land for parks, we are buying new land to run roads for more for-profit development.
Parks & Open Spaces
The situation with our parks and open spaces is worse than I realized, thanks to years of neglect. Chapel Hill has the lowest per-capita parks spending of any community in the area. For example, we’ve been promising families with kids a splash pad and modern concrete skate park for years — basic parks amenities provided by towns like Pittsboro and Apex and many, many others — but haven’t delivered. Instead, this year we allocated a fraction of the total funding needed for a modern skate park or adaptive playground, hoping voters wouldn’t notice.
Adam’s Key Votes
Housing and Parks
South Creek 800+ unit development, voted for: I voted for the new South Creek development across from Southern Village with more than 800 new apartments and townhomes coupled with commercial space. This development is head and shoulders above the usual “large apartment building surrounded by a parking lot” type project that I oppose. Why? This developer’s commitment to preservation of 80 acres of forest and open space across a creek as part of the development that will contain extensive hiking and biking trails and provide for public access and parking.
Downtown Affordable Housing, voted for: I enthusiastically voted for Trinity Court – a great affordable housing development on town property centrally located near downtown and Umstead Park.
New Downtown Apartments, voted for: I voted for building a new 150-unit apartment building downtown with a new 3,500 feet of retail space at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia streets, bringing more housing to our downtown.
Multiple Affordable Housing Projects Across Town, voted for: I’ve voted to invest over $9 million taxpayer dollars to help build hundreds of units in multiple town affordable housing projects from town projects, the Community Home Trust, Habitat for Humanity’s Weaver’s Grove, and many more.
Streamlining Development Process for Affordable Housing Developments, voted for: I think we can meet our goals on development review while speeding up the development process to significantly reduce costs for projects that contain a certain amount of affordable housing. While I wish the amount of affordable housing in these projects would be required to be greater than 25%, I think this is an important way to help encourage more and faster affordable building in our town.
119 New Homestead Road Townhomes – voted for: I approved a development of 119 for-sale townhomes off Homestead Road. Although I thought this development’s initial stages contained much more of our needed green space, I believe our need for more affordable smaller townhomes outweighed this shortcoming and this was a generally well-thought out project.
Single Family Zoning Removal, voted against: I voted against changing our single-family zoning to allow more building of what I believe will inevitably be expensive luxury multi-unit and investor-owned duplexes. Research shows this change will not create more affordable homes for lower and middle-income families and we are already building and planning thousands of new apartments and townhomes all over Chapel Hill, successfully creating more housing choices. And under state law and town code, many neighborhoods are exempt from this change, meaning this policy is not fairly applied to all.
Build on Toxic Coal Ash, voted against: I voted against building family housing and/or our government offices on top of our Chapel Hill toxic coal ash site without completely removing the coal ash and other landfill trash first. Remove it and let’s build as quickly as possible! Here’s some of the latest research on the effects of coal ash on human health:
Build on Preserved Open Space/Forest, voted against: I voted against the Jay Street housing development because it is being built on public land purchased by voters specifically for green space preservation with open space bonds. Even though I would normally support building affordable housing, there was no effort to replace this voter-owned preserved green space adjacent to many modest townhomes and affordable houses nearby. Everyone deserves access to great green space and parkland, not just our wealthiest neighborhoods.
Barbee Chapel Apartments, voted against: I voted against the large apartment building surrounded by parking at Barbee Chapel Road – this project contains very few affordable apartments (23 out of 350 units), is isolated from transit, and is surrounded by parking with almost no real green space. We can do much better.
Reducing the Size of Legion Park, voted against: I voted against reducing by 1/4 the size of Legion Park – even for building more affordable housing – because I don’t believe our need for parks should continue to be pitted against our housing needs. Thousands of new apartments are being built or are in the planning stages in this Ephesus Road area, including many affordable apartments on town property, Community Home Trust homes, and many other homes in very modest neighborhoods. The Legion property was also purchased largely with park bonds approved by voters. When we ask voters to raise their taxes by voting for park bonds I believe money raised from those park bonds should be used for parks.
Kids, families and residents deserve a large park in this area just like other, more wealthy areas of Chapel Hill that have much, much larger parks. Bearing out my concerns about the large reduction of this park land, the first plans for this land are to drain and fill the fishing pond to prepare for development without spending a dime on a park for years. As usual, development comes first. See my remarks on this vote here.
After the vote, the town contracted with yet another consultant to estimate costs for draining the fishing pond and/or turning it into a retention pond/filling in any residual wetlands. Not a dime is to be spent on a park for years while development proceeds quickly.
Several years ago the Legion property was envisioned as a park, and our town staff was focused on getting bids from contractors to fix the dam here and in the similar fishing pond at Meadowmont park, not preparing the site for development.
Build a UNC Hospitals Parking Garage on Land Identified for Preservation and New Hope Wildlife Corridor, voted against. This was a tough vote for me. While I strongly support UNC’s project on the Eastowne office park, UNC insisted that as a part of this project they be allowed to build one of multiple parking garages in the middle of upland forest and land identified as a critical New Hope Creek wildlife corridor by a respected cross-county multi-organization conservation group. The garage would be built on the part of the land most critical for preservation, leaving basically a steep slope and swampland as a meaningless “preserved area” of much less preservation value.
UNC Hospitals offered a $5 million no-interest loan to the town as well for affordable housing if we allowed the building of the parking garage in the land identified for wildlife and preservation. Because UNC Hospitals already has a community benefit obligation under federal law to Chapel Hill to assist us with things like affordable housing for their growing employee base, I voted against this project, believing we could get a much better deal for affordable housing with smarter negotiation with UNC. I also did not like once again pitting our need for affordable housing against our need for environmental preservation and this time at the insistence of an outside entity.
Tax Increase, voted against: I voted against one of the largest property tax increases in town history – a 5 cent increase – that we passed this year. Our taxpayers here in Orange County are now paying the highest average property taxes in the Southeastern United States. I am happy to raise taxes for our key needs like maintaining our police and fire vehicles, investing in our parks and downtown, and other important priorities, but we need to explain why we needed such a large tax increase and I don’t think we met that standard. In addition, while I know many folks in town can afford a tax increase like this, there are many people who are not able to so easily absorb such a large tax jump such as people on fixed incomes.
- Adam’s column on why great development plans need to include parks and green space: “To Care About Parks, Care About Development”
- Adam’s parks and recreation op-ed in the News and Observer: “Town Council member: Chapel Hill has a parks problem”
More on the removal of single family zoning restrictions:
- Investor presentation for new million-dollar townhomes on a single family lot in Arlington, VA after single family zoning restrictions were eliminated there last year.
- ABC11 News Story on Raleigh’s single family zoning changes and the first big project in the city – a single family home removed to make way for multiple $2 million townhomes
More on property taxes:
- Three maps from different sources showing Orange County taxpayers paying the highest average property tax rates in the Southeastern US: Tax Foundation – Interactive Property Tax Map
- Today’s Homeowner – Property Tax Paper
- CNN – Property Tax Map
Note: While there is no general definition of “the Southeastern US”, for purposes of this comparison I’m including the generally accepted states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These are the states, for example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Department of Labor define as “the Southeast Region” [US DOL is a little more restrictive and does not include Arkansas and Louisiana.] I don’t think comparing Chapel Hill to communities in the DC to New Jersey to New York “Acela Corridor” is particularly valid, but yes some of those communities have higher property taxes than we do here although I wouldn’t say that’s something to which I would like us to aspire.
Town of Chapel Hill legal opinion allowing development on parks/preserved green space purchased by voter-approved environmental preservation/park bonds:
- Here’s Chapel Hill’s confidential legal opinion giving the town the green light to build on preserved green space and park land purchased with taxpayer-approved open space preservation and park bond funds. Under current town policy the town no longer feels it must dedicate land purchased with park bond funds to
parks or land purchased with affordable housing bond funds to affordable housing – it’s apparently now just up to the current Town Council to decide the use regardless of past promises made to voters about the bonds on which they voted.
More on the importance of equity in our parks/green space expansion and parks decision making:
- I find so inspiring the equity-driven parks and natural surface trail/green space collaboration of our neighbor up I-40 West, Old Fort, NC. This community is a national leader in building more access to green space, trails and the natural world, connecting the efforts directly with hard work around equity for all, small
business development, and building support from the community up: Black leadership advances new trails project in Pisgah National Forest, Carolina Public Press
- The Trail Collective
- The Catawba Vale
- Park equity solutions: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Three Local Policy Solutions That Can Advance Park Equity”
- And don’t forget health: NC State: How Parks and Green Spaces Can Improve Your Health [and do so equitably]
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