Feel-good decisions

As I interact with people when I do errands, I often ask them whether they live in Chapel Hill and why. I ask those who live in town what they would like Town Council to know. Usually, I hear the Big Three Issues: affordability, flooding and traffic.

Not long ago, I heard a new one: Stop making decisions that make yourselves feel better.

That was hard feedback to hear, especially after I reflected and realized the resident had a point. We sometimes make decisions that sound good but don’t consider the impact on the quality of life of many of the people who live here.

We did it again last week by voting to allow accessory dwelling units to be exempt from short-term rental regulations. The decision allows those garage apartments and backyard cottages often rented year-round to grad students, singles and couples who don’t make a lot of money to sit empty, awaiting visitors who pay more for a short stay than the property owner could charge for year-round rent. I was the lone dissenting vote.

A prior council approved ADUs almost everywhere in town to increase the number of affordable housing units. At last week’s meeting, a council member flipped the rationale, saying that ADUs would bring in extra income for the property owner, thus making the main property more affordable for the owner. And that’s true.

Except that the vast majority of ADUs are in fairly well-off neighborhoods — historic districts and established single-family house neighborhoods with large yards — whose homeowners enjoy the extra income but don’t rely on it to stay solvent.

Households making less than the Area Median Income of $80,000 a year likely would be hard-pressed to borrow the $150,000 or so to build a garage apartment or cottage. Banks won’t consider rent as income, and are reticent to lend money for housing if the borrower already owns another home. The rationale, a banker told me, is that the motivation to repay a loan is less if the borrower has another place to live.

Tourists who can afford the nightly rates charged for ADUs likely will spend a lot of money at restaurants in town. We want that for our businesses and for the tax revenue it brings in. But it will come at the expense of those modest income earners who want to live in town.

Certainly, I understand the desire to boost one’s income. As someone who has been self-employed for nearly a quarter century and who worked for nonprofits and the government in expensive cities before that, I’ve been chasing the dollar all of my career.

That’s also why I stay so firmly fixed in support of affordable housing. People want a chance to build a good life for themselves. As our affordable housing options in Chapel Hill shrink, so do the opportunities for others at the beginning of their careers or who have chosen careers that don’t pay a lot.

Council felt good about its decision to give financially secure residents one more way to increase their livelihood. But for the 200 or so people who live on very tight budgets and no longer will have the option of renting a garage apartment or backyard cottage, living in Chapel Hill will become that much harder.

— Nancy Oates

Right on red

One theory has it that if we just make traffic bad enough, people will take the bus.

Perhaps that was the rationale behind an item on the Town Council consent agenda coming up this week that would have prohibited turning right at red lights in 16 high-traffic intersections.

A former council member proposed the right-turn-on-red ban a few years ago. I recall when it came before the Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board (I was its council liaison at the time) that the proposed ordinance change was an attempt to prevent cars and pedestrians being in the same space at the same time.

TCAB members, all serious cyclists who no doubt have had their own near misses with cars, wanted to make sure car drivers didn’t feel they had right-of-way over pedestrians. The ordinance couldn’t prevent car-pedestrian interactions; an ordinance is only as effective as the people who follow it.

The ordinance was not even a sort of insurance that drivers who violated it would be punished. Pedestrians always have right-of-way, even when they are not in a marked crosswalk. Even when pedestrians wander, distracted, into the street, the onus is always on the driver to stop. As soon as we get behind the wheel of a car, we accept an additional layer of responsibility.

One wag suggested an alternate resolution: Prohibit cars from running over people.

No doubt we have more distracted pedestrians and drivers than in days before cell phones. We already have some intersections in town that prohibit right-turn-on-red, and cars don’t always abide by it, anymore than pedestrians always wait for the crosswalk signal or cyclists always obey traffic lights. The solution to reducing car-pedestrian interactions is for both the driver and the walker to be more vigilant.

As we have increased density in Chapel Hill, traffic jams have worsened. People choose cars over public transit, walking or cycling for a variety of reasons. Widening roadways is not the answer. But we can make adjustments to improve the flow of traffic, and that includes draining off traffic backups by allowing cars to turn right on red when it is safe to do so. We need to balance the needs of drivers and walkers for a town that works well.

— Nancy Oates


Last week I arrived at a meeting after it had started because I had seriously underestimated how long it would take me to drive there. Now that students and professors are back and families have returned from vacations in time for the start of school, some 20,000 to 40,000 additional cars are on the street that hadn’t been there all summer. The two-and-a-half-mile drive from campus to the library took me 30 minutes.

Rush-hour traffic jams have gotten worse in recent years. Yet a traffic consultant the town hired some months back contends that there are fewer cars on Chapel Hill streets these days. So why, in the same report, were so many intersections rated as failing or close to it, and why do those of us who drive during rush hour wait longer to get where we need to go?

Town staff want to know these answers, too. And they want to start with your experience. Begin by taking the survey. If you want to delve deeper, sign up to participate in a focus group.

Traffic will only worsen in coming years, once tenants begin moving into the apartments Town Council has approved — some 2,000 in Blue Hill alone, which will dump cars onto the already congested 15-501 and Ephesus Church Road area.

One strategy I hear from constituents is to make vehicle traffic so bad that people will abandon their cars in favor of buses, bikes or their own two feet. But that reasoning has flaws.

People who don’t take buses now aren’t going to begin taking public transit if the buses don’t run when and where they need to go. Not everyone owns a bike or feels safe on one or is in the physical condition to ride regularly, or they don’t have access to a shower and wardrobe change at their destination. As for walking, too many high-speed corridors don’t have sidewalks, and carrying groceries long distances may not be feasible, not to mention that with the fast-paced performance expectations of most employers, people can’t take time to walk.

Somewhere in all of this are seeds for solutions. Let’s begin by describing the problem and brainstorming some ideas that move us closer to solutions.

Here’s more information in a news release issued by the town.

— Nancy Oates

Too simple to understand?

Solutions to town problems seemed so much simpler when I sat in the audience at Town Hall covering Town Council meetings for my Chapel Hill Watch blog. After I was elected and moved to the dais, I learned there are no easy answers.

Running for re-election this year, I was disheartened to receive questionnaires from two organizations that asked for yes-or-no responses or to choose only one multiple-choice answer. All of the questions touched on issues important to shaping our growth as a town and improving functionality. And few of them could be answered with a direct yes/no or pick-one from a predetermined set.

I realize voters want a simple way to differentiate the seven candidates. But the questionnaires would lead to confusion.

Here’s an example from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce: “Do you support allocating the full downtown district tax to the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership?”

Because I’m a staunch supporter of Launch, and 40% of the downtown service district tax funds Launch (another $60,000 pays for a downtown groundskeeper), my answer would be “No.” But do all readers know that Launch would be crippled if the special tax were pulled from Launch and turned over to the Downtown Partnership? And that we’d lose the groundskeeper position and stiff 140 West to the tune of $110,000? And if we gave all of the tax to the partnership, would we rescind the $70,000 we give the partnership out of the town’s General Fund?

Perhaps the chamber assumed that the Downtown Partnership could fund Launch.

However, that’s not what the question asked. If it had said “… providing the partnership continued funding Launch at the current level and the groundskeeper and 140 West.” Without that context, a yes/no answer could confuse voters about my priorities.

Orange Politics sent out a similar survey. A sample question asked: “If there is a limit to the height of a building you would be willing to consider, what is that height in stories?” The choices ranged from “No limit” to “10 or more” ( I know, it’s the same thing, but there were ordinal numbers in between).

Even so, the answer left out the context — Where? What’s the current zoning? Any special overlays, such as a Neighborhood Conservation District or Airport Hazard Zone? What does the FLUM indicate? Would the use be residential, office, retail, school or recreation? How many parking spaces would it require? How much impervious surface would a tall building take up versus a shorter one? What’s the land’s flooding history?

The questionnaires put candidates in an awkward position. Do we try to answer have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife questions and further confuse the public? Or do we decline to answer and risk readers thinking we are uninterested in participating?

I’m still weighing how to respond, if I can’t answer the questions in a meaningful way. I take my responsibilities as a decision maker on council seriously. Voters expect nothing less of us. If a questionnaire next to my name is missing, please look to any of the forums, radio interviews, YouTube videos or Chapel Hill Watch posts to learn my stance on these important issues.

— Nancy Oates

Civil discourse

A bit of unpleasantness broke out at a nonprofit board meeting recently. An elected official (no Chapel Hill Town Council member or candidate), clearly frustrated by the discussion, behaved unprofessionally, using what in our family we call a “swear word.”

I blame Trump.

Politics at the national level has become a free-for-all, and the incivility has trickled down to smaller jurisdictions. Even students at UNC noticed the meanness of the race for student body president last spring. Some student voters commented that it had made them rethink aspirations of a career in politics.

And if voters concerned about issues and how decisions made by elected officials impact their lives shut the door on politics, then we’re all doomed. Decisions that affect our quality of life will be made by vindictive office-holders with fragile, oversized egos who have no concern about the welfare of anyone else. Instead of examining issues and seeking solutions, voters and office-holders alike engage in social media smackdowns of those who hold opposing views.

We need to have serious, rational discussions about our future, make decisions and take action. In some areas we are approaching a crisis point.

Globally, water levels are rising as the Earth heats up, and weather patterns are changing to produce fierce storms and droughts that ravage our food production.

Nationally, we have a government that treats people inhumanely and siphons aid away from low-income families and individuals to fatten the bank accounts of the already wealthy.

At the state level, politicians create laws that suppress voters’ rights and cut off access to health care to millions of residents.

Locally, we squabble among factions and prevent ourselves from making decisions that are in the best interest of the community as a whole. Too often, we divide ourselves into teams and strategize to collect the most wins, rather than working constructively to move the town forward as we grow.

So far, the election to fill seats for four council members and a mayor has been civil. Then again, candidate forums won’t begin until next month. All of the candidates are smart and college educated (or will be soon). We have the ability to keep the debates information rich and at a high level of civility. Let’s set an example for jurisdictions around us.

— Nancy Oates

Managing growth

I had forgotten how many, many stars abide in the sky until this past week when I went to a place dark enough to see them.

Light pollution wipes them from visibility. When I lived in Manhattan, I never saw a star outside of the planetarium. Over time, light pollution has crept into Chapel Hill, and fewer stars show up. But this past week, along the shore of Lake Michigan, far from any town of significant size, I looked up to see the night sky laden with stars.

My family has been vacationing at this remote spot since my mom was a girl, and over the decades, it has been relatively immune to change. But this year, we noticed some differences.

The water level in the lake is several feet higher, due to melt-off of unusually heavy snow over the past winter caused by changing weather patterns as the planet heats up. Global warming has melted some of the towering ice cliffs that previously kept artic winds and snowstorms from reaching this far south. Houses with basements had sump pumps running around the clock because the water table has risen so much.

More people are traveling farther in search of increasingly scarce undeveloped areas. That irony presents a conundrum for town leaders who so far have not allowed forestland to be razed to make room for seasonal rentals.

Town residents understand that tourist spending enables the locals to live there year-round. Tourists come for the unspoiled forests and beaches, the independent businesses that provide homemade ice cream and fudge and meals made from local ingredients. Town leaders manage growth to accommodate more tourists without sacrificing what brings them to the area in the first place.

This year, multistory condos sprouted from parking lots near the beach, and cars battled for on-street parking in residential areas. One small town used some of its booming tax revenue to build a sidewalk so cars could park along the side of the road where tourists used to walk. Slow-moving traffic choked the main roads.

Town leaders have made mistakes along the way. A few years ago, one town built a bandshell in a waterfront park and did not conduct an environmental impact study nor receive public input. They sited the bandshell facing the nearby homes, not the lake, which resulted in a lawsuit from residents because the performances that ran until midnight violated the town’s noise ordinance.

We, in Chapel Hill, need to pay attention to what brings people to the area so as not to melt away our revenue source. Do they come for the trees? Our reputation for green-lighting all development encourages clear-cutting. For the historic neighborhoods? State law won’t let us stop the destruction of historic houses. For independent restaurants? Expensive rents are pushing them out and replacing them with national chains. The campus? We need to coordinate better with university leaders.

The solutions are there somewhere. Just like the stars, we need the right conditions before we can see them.

— Nancy Oates

Senior housing

Plan ahead. Senior housing consultant Michelle Lytle-Westrom wants you to take that message to heart, above all else. The future will be here before you know it.

Lytle-Westrom spoke to a standing-room-only crowd, most of us with gray hair, at the library last Sunday afternoon to run through various options once we were ready to downsize to a lower-maintenance living situation.

The good news: The market offers plenty of options. The less-good-news: Almost all of them are astoundingly expensive.

There are 55+ communities with homes to buy or rent, either age-qualified (one of the tenants or owners living there must be at least 55 years old) or age-targeted (any age, including families with young children may live there).

There are Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) that require residents to pay a sizable buy-in fee and be able to live independently when they move in and for the foreseeable future, then offer higher levels of care as needed as residents age. CCRCs provide many amenities, such as transportation to shopping and medical appointments, meals in a communal dining room, and entertainment options on site. Residents pay a monthly fee equivalent to rent for a very nice home.

There are standalone assisted living and memory care facilities. And there are a limited number of income-restricted apartments for people living on very modest fixed incomes.

The newest option is rental CCRC units that don’t require a buy-in, although, unlike traditional CCRCs, once tenants run out of money, they will have to leave.

Health and physical abilities decline with age. Each of the CCRCs has a range of contract choices that spell out how the resident and facility split health-care costs. Lytle-Westrom listed many questions that people will want to ask before making a decision about what type of housing arrangement is the best fit.

Almost every housing option Lytle-Westrom discussed has a waiting list of 5 to 10 years. Nearly 20% of Orange County residents are at least 60 years old, and as people live longer, that percentage will only rise, and the wait lists will grow longer.

Many people are reluctant to leave their longtime homes rife with memories and downsize to a retirement community. But they gamble with fate, given that they must document they are in good health physically, mentally and financially before they move in. Instead, they might look to the future, toward the prospect of moving into a community where they might establish longtime friendships over a decade or two.

For an overview of senior housing options, visit UNC’s Partnerships in Aging website, partnershipsinaging.unc.edu. Click on the “Initiatives” tab, then select “Senior Housing Report.”

— Nancy Oates


Why I’m running

Last week we held one of the oddest council meetings I have seen in the decade I have been keeping tabs on council business. Odd that we called a special meeting in the summer to revote on something we had voted on five months earlier. Odder still the number of politicians and political advocates lobbying against what those most affected by the issue lobbied for.

The politicos outnumbered community members 2:1. It was almost as though the politically connected were trying to send a message to those of us up for re-election this year or in two years that political connections can drown out the voices of the people who live here.

After casting my vote to support the community members, I left the meeting knowing this was why I wanted one more term on council: to make sure the voice of the people is heard.

I’m a public servant, not a politician. My mission is to go out into the community to learn where people stand on issues and bring those voices back to council to be part of the discussion. While I can count to five (the number of votes on council it takes to pass a motion), I also understand the power of reason as we on council try to balance the town’s inevitable growth with the quest for individuals to have a good life.

And all of us want a good life, even as we recognize that the vision of a good life is different for each of us. By listening to people talk about what they love about Chapel Hill and what they don’t want to lose as progress churns through, I have been able to find various points on which we agree:

We want people who work in town to be able to live here, and we’re willing to pay more in taxes for that to happen. We understand the need for trees to counter flooding and climate change. We want to reduce the time we spend stuck in traffic. We recognize the need to increase the number of local jobs.

For the past four years, I’ve shown my commitment to bringing community voices to the decision-making table. I have the tenacity — the stick-to-it-iveness — to continue finding balance as we grow. For that, we need to hear all voices.

I’m asking for your support to make sure your voice is at the table. Visit ReElectNancyOates.org

— Nancy Oates

BRT’s next stop

If you don’t know what NSBRT is as you read this today, you must have taken off for the beach this past weekend.

Town staff hosted a blitz of presentations, focus groups and community input meetings over the weekend to introduce North-South Bus Rapid Transit to the public. The bus line, part of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, will be essentially an express bus that will run in it’s own dedicated lane and will have a transmitter aboard to synchronize its travel with traffic lights. As the bus approaches an intersection, the traffic light will ready to turn green so as to minimize the time that BRT vehicles spend at traffic lights.

The project is at its 30% design phase, and is just now beginning the station area planning. Consultants led the public through what development might occur near the BRT’s limited stops.

Town planning staff have colored in spots on the Future Land Use Map to reflect the high-density development they would like to see near the bus stops. Consultants showed drawings of what the areas could look life with boulevards breaking up sections of road that are nine lanes across at present.

But before we get too far down the road with BRT, we need to look at the functionality: Who will ride the bus, and why?

We also need to sit down with some major development project investors to find out what would entice them to invest in a particular area. A previous council may have missed that step in approving what was then The Edge and now is Carraway Village. That parcel, wedged in between I-40 and Eubanks Road.

Council approved a Special Use Permit to build a major commercial and retail center with some apartments along the western border. But what came out of the ground five years later were apartments, plus a Starbuck’s and a Chick-Fil-A. Apparently, we forgot to loop in the investors with the money to bring the project out of the ground. Something about that site is not appealing to investors. We need to find out definitively what was missing.

Town staff will bring before council Monday night (July 15 at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers in Town Hall) what they heard from all the informational meetings and events.

Join us!

— Nancy Oates

Next party will be better

Give us another chance. We had to make a comparatively last-minute change of venue for the fireworks that for years had been at Kenan Stadium on July 4th, and we faced a steep learning curve.

When Mack Brown returned to UNC as its football coach at the end of last year, he insisted on swapping out the grass field for AstroTurf. Work crews are putting the finishing touches on the newly laid synthetic grass field at this very moment.

Fireworks don’t mix well with synthetic grass. Although it won’t catch fire the way grass does, it will melt when those flecks of burning cinders land on it. Given the likelihood of damage, UNC and town staff mutually agreed to cancel the fireworks display at the stadium.

Turns out trying to find an alternate venue for a major fireworks event last minute is harder than booking a wedding reception on the fly. The largest open space available was Southern Community Park.

Staff scrambled, and I give them a lot of credit. The event at Kenan Stadium had grown over the years to attract maybe 20,000 fireworks fans. Live music, seating, snacks and bathrooms — we had the ability to invite people beyond those with a Chapel Hill address to a free party. With Kenan Stadium scratched off our list, the next biggest venue could handle maybe a quarter of the crowd we’ve had in the past.

Traffic along 15-501 was bumper-to-bumper for more than a mile. Frustrated drivers let their passengers out in the middle of the road to hike in. Afterward, people walked in the dark along the shoulder and even in the road to get home. People who gave up and tried to find other vantage points had limited views due to tall buildings and tall trees (yes, there are some left).

Those accounts are from people who tried to get to Southern Village that evening. I joined a crowd of expats on top of the hospital parking decks, people who did not realize the venue had changed or who knew what rush hour traffic was like on 15-501 and did the math for the July 4th event.

Some things we can do differently next year: 1) Use our digital traffic signs to inform drivers days in advance of the change of venue; 2) Run shuttle buses from the hospital parking decks and University Place; 3) Have smaller fireworks displays in multiple venues around town.

Or, join us on the parking deck. Bring beach chairs and a boom box.

— Nancy Oates