As a teenager in Chapel Hill over 40 years ago, I first walked through the doors of a now long-gone local bicycle shop, Tumbleweed Cyclery, in need of an after-school job. I loved bikes and was lucky enough to live in a town with thriving local businesses, amazing woods, parks, and outdoor opportunities, and a great community spirit.
I was quickly put to work not on bikes but on sweeping the floors, cleaning the dirtiest bike parts for the real mechanics and picking up lunch at Italian Pizzeria III. But that was OK — I was finally part of the shop, even in a small way. Working my way up to an actual mechanic took a while, but I learned a very valuable lesson about problem-solving from the shop owners and older mechanics that has served me well and applies far beyond bicycle repair: Assess the situation, figure out what isn’t working, find the right tools, and fix the problem.
I’m now a public interest lawyer with both law and public health degrees from UNC who has worked on issues like establishing NC’s children’s health insurance program, passing the national Affordable Care Act, and helping states from North Carolina to Oklahoma expand Medicaid so millions of individuals, kids and families can finally get decent, affordable health care. I have won awards for my national and state work from President Obama, FamiliesUSA, the NC Pediatric Society, and the NC Public Health Association. Closer to home I’ve also built local hiking and biking trails, worked to preserve our woods and green spaces, helped start and coach our growing kid’s mountain bike school league, and most recently won a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council where I’ve served for over a year and a half.
Nationally or locally, my early bike shop lesson — identify and fix the problem — has served me well in many of my successes. But never has it been more relevant for me than in my current role in Chapel Hill government. I came into office with a desire to save some trees, improve our parks, make housing more available to all, and continue to serve my community. But, like in the bike shop, I’ve found lots of pretty big problems that need fixing.
- 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 will continue to do so. 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.
- 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 11%, one of the biggest increases in town history. 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.
- 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.
So where do we go from here? A community-first vision for Chapel Hill:
We need a Mayor and Town Council that listen to residents — you and me and all our neighbors — instead of consistently ignoring community concerns.
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”!
Our 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.
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.
We have plenty of problems. But we’ve got the tools and ideas to fix what’s wrong and get us moving in the right direction. I dove in to my work in the bike shop, and I’m ready to dive in and get to work as your mayor!