CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story was not clear enough in describing the Asheville School District's housing program for teachers. The district used a no-interest loan to build permanently affordable housing in town for its teachers. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.
The candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council and the Mayor's office attempted to distinguish themselves at a forum hosted by the Orange County Democratic Party and the Orange County Democratic Women Tuesday night.
The candidates agreed Chapel Hill should adopt more mixed-use, dense development along transportation corridors. Candidates tried to distinguish themselves by the values they would consider when deciding on future development.
Town council candidate Paul Neebe said development should be revenue-positive and diverse. He said he would consider where people shop, work and travel when deciding the location for new developments.
Incumbent Donna Bell said the ideal development is flexible, not reactive. She said Chapel Hill is recovering from a decision 30 years ago to not bring retail to the town. Now, the business climate has changed and the council is charged with making the area appealing to retail.
"Change is very difficult and feels weird and makes people uncomfortable," Bell said. "That's why it's so important that we're flexible, not reactionary — that we not react to the discomfort, that we not react to the idea that it doesn't feel the same as it always felt."
Town council candidate Nancy Oates said she does not support the Obey Creek development because the council ignored community input.
"They put a lot of time and effort into their presentations and they left feeling ignored," Oates said.
Mayor candidate Pam Hemminger and incumbent Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said they support form-based code, which regulates how zoned areas must look and feel once they are developed.
However, Hemminger said some form-based code does not consider the aesthetics of the town. Hemminger said she would push for a design standard or guideline for future developments to ensure they mesh with the town's current structures.
Bell said she is proud of the Special Use Permitting process, which allows for the town to control how developments impact surrounding neighborhoods, including historic districts.
Town council candidate David Schwartz said he wants to balance student, middle-income and affordable housing. To do this, he said he would explore options similar to a program in Asheville. In this program, the State Employees Credit Union Foundation provided the Asheville School District with a no-interest loan that was used to build permanently affordable housing for its teachers.
Town council candidate Jessica Anderson said she is against more luxury housing in the area and would rather see more affordable options.
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The candidates said collaboration with the University for transportation, business and housing is better than ever. Candidates said they hope recent graduates, especially young entrepreneurs, will plant roots in Chapel Hill.
In order to keep graduates around, candidates agreed that Chapel Hill should create more office space.
Oates said she would focus on creating affordable office space.
"More and more people are working for themselves," Oates said. "They have a good idea, they have the business skills and they're starting their own companies. We have to be able to have affordable space for them to be flexible and realize their dream."
Town council incumbent Lee Storrow said he represents all Chapel Hill residents, but he is especially focused on issues that impact students and recent graduates.
Storrow said he is proud of Launch Chapel Hill and 1789 Venture Lab, which are innovation spaces established through partnerships with the University.
In light of the state legislature's cap on light rail spending, all candidates except for mayor candidate Gary Khan said they supported some form of the light rail project.
Khan said he would rather see the money go towards improving and expanding the bus system.
Kleinschmidt said he still supports the light rail despite pushback from Republicans in the state legislature. He said after the Draft Environmental Impact Statement comment period, which is going on now, the legislature will be better informed about the project.
Hemminger said she hopes the state legislature's hesitations about the project will allow the project's planners to evaluate the current route's impact on Chapel Hill. She said safety concerns for routes going through neighborhoods have not been adequately addressed.
"I want us to be able to have the best economic development outcomes for our stops," Hemminger said. "I'm not sure of this current route — and I'm not in favor of this current route — because I think it could be made even better. This is going to be in there for the long term once we put it in, so we need to get it right."
Town council candidate Michael Parker said the town council has an obligation to take a leadership role in the transportation conversation because Chapel Hill has the second largest transit system in the state.
"The number one problem perceived by people is traffic," Parker said.
He said he would focus on commuter traffic coming in and out of Chapel Hill by partnering with regional transportation services to create more one-bus or one-stop routes.
Anderson, K-12 education policy analyst, said Chapel Hill attracts families because of its strong school system, but she said she is concerned that schools will not keep up with with increased development.
"We are setting the stage for a huge overcrowding problem," Anderson said. "These huge developments with 70 to 80 percent residential are not even up yet. What's going to happen when those new people come in and there's all these claims about 'oh families with children don't live in apartments'? I just can't imagine a world where that's true."
Anderson said the Town Council should increase collaboration with the school board and the county to prepare for an influx of school-aged children in Chapel Hill.
Along with development, candidates stressed their commitment to natural space.
Town council incumbent Jim Ward said he is the candidate with the most experience balancing development and environmental interests.
Storrow and Kleinschmidt said they were proud of the development balance in the Obey Creek development, which preserved 80 acres of green space.
Kleinschmidt said he will work on providing green space along the rural buffer, which separates the dense-development areas from the rural community.
Hemminger said she is happy with the amount of green space in the town, but she wants to improve transportation to those areas.
Kahn said high taxes are forcing people out of town rather than supporting poor people.
Kleinschmidt said he is especially concerned with children in poverty, and has led the town council to engage with youth in Chapel Hill about their experiences.
Hemminger said she would like to see more opportunities for collaboration between volunteer-based groups like PORCH and TABLE, which focus on hunger relief, and local government.
Mayoral candidate Gary Kahn does not have party support or outside funding. His campaign is entirely self-funded.
"I think we should abolish the confederate flag." — Gary Kahn.
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