DOLRT’s Cost-Plus

If anything could sway me toward taking on the crushing debt of the Durham-Orange CountyNancy Oates Light Rail it would be the promise of getting some affordable housing in return. And sure enough, in its presentation about planning DOLRT stations, GoTriangle reps dangled that yarn ball before Town Council — including affordable housing in the mix of luxury rentals, retail shops and office space.

Forget that every developer except one (Epcon Communities, builder of the Courtyards at Homestead) has said that it “can’t make the numbers work” to include affordable units alongside its market rate ones.

Forget that three of the five stations in Orange County are on land belonging to UNC, and Chapel Hill has no say on what goes there. A fourth station is on land that is completely built out already.

The GoTriangle reps at the Feb. 13 Town Council meeting pushed forth the notion that the developers who have bought up the prime greenfield real estate along the DOLRT line would be happy to build affordable rentals within walking distance of the light rail stops.

Until council member Jessica Anderson noted that developers likely would not provide this housing as a gift. Would the town have to subsidize these units, she asked. The GoTriangle rep shifted his weight self-consciously and admitted, “That’s usually how it works.”

So, Anderson continued, in addition to finding money for the DOLRT’s growing budget, Orange County taxpayers would have to fork over millions of dollars more for affordable housing units? “Yes,” the GoTriangle rep conceded.

That got me thinking about what we could do if we weren’t locked into essentially a 50-year mortgage to repay $2.5 billion for light rail.

Last fall, a consultant we hired identified about $100 million in affordable housing need, which we considered an impossible amount. At the Feb. 13 meeting, a community member laid out an extended Bus Rapid Transit plan that would serve almost all of the areas where UNC says its hospital and university employees live. That plan would cost less than $1 billion.

GoTriangle said it was asking the Orange County commissioners to delay its up-or-down vote on DOLRT until June. But GoTriangle plans to start the $70 million engineering phase in April. GoTriangle’s argument in December at the joint boards and commissions meeting was that if county commissioners pulled the plug on DOLRT, taxpayers would forfeit the chance that the federal government would reimburse the county for the $30 million we have spent so far. With Donald Trump’s government by fiat, there is no guarantee we would be reimbursed at all, much less for $100 million, the accrued amount if we proceed with engineering. (The engineering contract can be terminated at any time without penalty.)

We have a vision for Chapel Hill, which includes “A Place for Everyone.” When enacting that vision has been stymied, it is usually because of lack of money. Proceeding with DOLRT could sidetrack us permanently from becoming the town we want to be.
— Nancy Oates

Welcome to the club

Some of us spend so much time thinking about stormwater runoff and traffic jams and otherNancy Oates indications of overdevelopment that we forget quality of life goes beyond whether an apartment has granite countertops or who has to shovel the sidewalks. So I consider it a gift that I was invited to a tour of Club Nova followed by a meeting with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, a managed care organization to which Club Nova has applied for a sizeable grant.

For the past 30 years, Club Nova has opened the doors of its small house on West Main Street in Carrboro (after Chapel Hill turned down Club Nova’s request to open a day center) as a safe place for those recovering from mental illness to find friends, acceptance and belonging. People learn to become part of society again through Club Nova’s activities and programs.

Clubhouse members can help keep the place running by working in the kitchen (Club Nova serves 13 low-cost meals per week), staffing the reception desk or the thrift shop, or signing up for a myriad of other tasks that need to be done. They can enjoy the social and recreation programs the club arranges on evenings and weekends.

Club Nova’s professional staff help people with next steps, such as enrolling in educational courses or returning to work, and help sort out the complexities of the health care system and disability payments.

Isolation is a factor in many mental illnesses, and Club Nova has a shuttle bus that can pick up club members who live beyond public transportation. With the high cost of housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, many club members live out in the county. Club Nova also has several studio apartments in a building behind the clubhouse that serve as transitional housing.

For the cost of a week’s hospitalization, Club Nova can serve a person for a year.

So last week, more than a dozen Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County leaders, including the county sheriff, Chapel Hill’s police chief, professors at the medical and social work schools and nonprofit directors, joined Club Nova in explaining to Cardinal why investing in the clubhouse benefits all of us. With the state’s refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act, thus denying Medicaid to half a million North Carolinians, Club Nova increasingly has to rely on private donations and grants.

Several club members who had built meaningful lives with the help of Club Nova came to the meeting at Carrboro’s Town Hall to share how they had benefited, and one of the most compelling arguments for Cardinal investing in Club Nova came from one of them.

“We’re the functioning ones,” he said. “The people who stayed at the clubhouse, their world is still small. It’s all at Club Nova. It would be a shame to take that away from them.”

I hope the Cardinal execs listened and understood the impact their investment could have on the quality of life for so many people.
— Nancy Oates

Dry county

Mayor Hemminger declared a state of emergency in Chapel Hill when OWASA warned all of itsNancy Oates customers not to drink, cook or wash with its water this past weekend. After reading the news release that concluded: “They [the Emergency Operations team] anticipate that this situation is temporary …” a friend emailed: “Well, that’s reassuring … sort of …”

Truth be told, the water crisis unnerved many of us. The situation showed how vulnerable we are in a way that our traditional ice storms never have. A couple of back-to-back problems — the Jones Ferry Road water treatment facility shutting down due to an unexplained surfeit of fluoride in the water, followed less than a day later by a major water main break — and we were on the same footing, water-wise, as residents of a Rwandan village.

Local businesses were hit hard. All restaurants and hotels that use OWASA water had to close, as did municipal buildings, public schools and the university, because they were unable to provide sanitary facilities. Sales and occupancy tax revenue dried up for the weekend. The men’s basketball game against Notre Dame relocated to Greensboro, sending its concession sales money and pre- and post-game restaurant and bar customers out of county.

I use my worrywart nature advantageously: I always have a Plan B. Not this time. Chapel Hill running out of water was too far outside the realm of possibility for me to devote energy to it. Fortunately, it was not too far-fetched for others in our community. OWASA, the Orange County Emergency Operations Center and the county public health director had thought this scenario through ahead of time and coordinated with one another to keep the rest of us informed, get clean water to us after the stores had run out, and worked around the clock to limit the worst of the impact to about 27 hours.

Once again, the community looked out for one another. Email listservs shared information about places that still had water to sell and tips to maintain functioning. One person offered water from his swimming pool to be used for flushing toilets.

And a special thank you to Harris Teeter. Customers cleared the shelves of all bottled water within hours of OWASA’s announcement that tap water was unsafe to use. The Teeter redirected shipments of water from other stores in the state to Orange County. Some of us who did not think to rush out and stock up on water would have paid any price by Saturday, and the store could have jacked up its price. Instead, Harris Teeter gave away jugs of drinking water free to anyone who needed it, no questions asked. And when the liter-bottle packs arrived the next day, the store honored its weekly special on Deer Park water.

A business that put the welfare of the community above its own profit. That was the most reassuring sign I’ve seen in a long while.
— Nancy Oates

Dry reading worth wading into

Have you read the Lower Booker Creek Subwatershed Study Report? Nancy Oates The tome is the type of reading you do only when the roads are iced over and you can’t leave your house for three days. But it contains critically important information that could save our town from washing away downstream.

Stormwater management experts give this advice on dealing with water: slow it down, spread it out, soak it up. That becomes increasingly difficult as the impervious surfaces of parking lots and rooftops limit the soil, vegetation and trees that soak it up. Climate change has wrought rainstorms of greater intensity that erode meandering stream banks into straight channels that rush water downstream faster. Water will spread out of its own accord. When that happens in developed areas, we call it flooding.

All of that runoff eventually makes its way to Jordan Lake, the drinking water supply for some towns in Wake and Chatham counties and, as development continues, perhaps to Chapel Hill in the future. Towns that feed Jordan Lake, as Chapel Hill does, bear the responsibility of cleaning up impurities before they get to the lake. If we don’t prevent sediment and toxins from washing into the lake now, removing them later becomes even more expensive.

Town Council, at its Jan. 18 meeting, adopted the subwatershed report, but did not go so far as to incorporate it into the town’s Comprehensive Plan from which council decides its goals. George Cianciolo led the charge to keep it out, because proceeding with the first five prioritized projects might require the town to purchase land for designated areas where water could spread out, and that would cost money.

The Comprehensive Plan lays out focus areas for future development, which also could require the town to purchase land for road construction, and I don’t see how that differs from purchasing land for stormwater management. Nevertheless, I joined the rest of council in voting for Cianciolo’s amended resolution in order to allow the town manager to begin work right away on the first five projects.

In our vote, we also agreed to explore a public/private partnership to repair Lake Ellen. Last month, a broken pipe drained the manmade lake and allowed the water to empty into Eastwood Lake, which had the capacity for it. But fixing the problem and bringing the lake up to current codes would be considerably more expensive than the Lake Ellen Homeowners Association had planned.

Because the lake is both an amenity to the homeowners living around it and serves a valuable stormwater management function for the town, it would benefit both parties to share the cost of restoring the lake to its original use.

Not everyone was happy with our vote. RAM Development wants to build hundreds of apartments on the Days Inn site in the Ephesus-Fordham district. The ground closest to the creek serves as a rainwater collector area, but RAM had planned to backfill it and build on top of it. RAM had not told the mayor or town manager of its plans and had already put in a year’s worth of planning time and effort.

Adding the stormwater report to the Comprehensive Plan might prevent another developer from that frustration.
— Nancy Oates

We the people

After the U.S. Department of the Interior retweeted a pair of aerial photos comparing Nancy Oatesthe size of the crowd at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 with the much sparser attendance at Donald Trump’s ceremony, Trump ordered the department’s Twitter accounts to be shut down.

Soon after, all pages on Whitehouse.gov that made reference to civil rights, health care or climate change reportedly were removed from the website.

Welcome to the Era of the Despot. No wonder millions of people around the world gathered in major cities to advocate for equality, kindness and decency.

In cities and towns around the world the day after the inauguration, people turned out for marches in numbers far beyond what was expected. A couple of days before the march in Raleigh, organizers expected about 2,000 participants. The crowd estimate at noon on Saturday was 17,000. About 200,000 were expected in Washington D.C.; half a million turned out, more than double the crowd for Trump’s inauguration. Chicago expected about 50,000 and was off by a factor of five. When 250,000 people clogged Chicago’s streets along the route, the “march” part had to be canceled and turned into a humongous rally.

The Raleigh march stepped off shortly before its 10:30 a.m. scheduled start time. The streets were so full of marchers that people at the back of the crowd in City Center weren’t able to begin walking until after 11. Those who took to the streets ranged from tikes in strollers to senior citizens with walkers.

The overwhelming response to the opportunity to show up may have its roots in women feeling that they had already fought these battles and made progress. Yet my daughter is facing the same discrimination I faced at her age. And the threats today transcend gender: the environment, health care, immigration, LGBTQ rights and, of course, unequal pay.

The marchers in the U.S., predominantly white judging by a New York Times compilation of photos from around the globe, https://nyti.ms/2jKBgNM, used humor in getting their message across, gently poking fun at Trump with such signs as “Even Ikea builds better cabinets,” and “If it weren’t for immigrants, Trump would have no wives.”

While people marched, Trump continued to show his disrespect for government and the citizenry, so as far as getting him to change his behavior or mindset, we were ineffective.

But what did change was strengthening the message to world leaders that “We are still here.” You can take away our rights, but you can’t touch our dignity. You can silence our voice, but you can’t make us go away.

Through that groundswell comes our power. Our congressional leaders are watching, even if Trump isn’t.
— Nancy Oates

I have a dream; do you?

Chapel Hill’s town manager Roger Stancil nailed it in his remarks at the close of the Nancy Oatestown employees’ celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The event took place at Hargraves Center just before lunch last Friday. The program included a dramatic re-enactment of Rosa Park’s story, starring Myra Evans of Parking Services; a musical number with soloist Ran Northam of Communications; and portions of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech channeled by Tom Clark of Human Resources.

After the cash prizes had been handed out for the winners of the poetry contest, Stancil and deputy town manager Flo Miller thanked three former town employees — Fred Battle, Maggie Burnett and Bruce Heflin — who, in 1997, started the tradition of an employee celebration of the holiday. Then Stancil had the last word.

He told the audience that the best way to honor Dr. King was to identify your dream clearly, then begin to make it happen. He talked about the town’s values of RESPECT — Responsibility, Equity, Safety, Professionalism, Ethics, Communication and Teamwork — and how leadership comes from living one’s values.

Those words could not have come at a better time. During a week that included President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference, snippets from the confirmation hearings of proposed Cabinet members, and Congress calling a midnight session to sneak through the first steps of dismantling health care for millions who can least afford it, leadership had hit an all-time low.

What I heard and experienced at events over MLK Jr. weekend, beginning with the employees’ celebration, gave me hope.

To be a force of change in the world doesn’t require organizing and leading marches or delivering sermons to thousands of people. Any and all of us can be leaders — even those of us who are introverts — by virtue of how we live our lives and show respect for one another. Speak up when you see an injustice; offer kindness without expecting anything in return.

Council members received a request from a community member asking that Inauguration Day be declared a day of mourning. Instead, Mayor Hemminger will ask council to join her in proclaiming Jan. 20, 2017, to be a Day of Kindness and Respect.

Maybe for some of us it will be the first day of a new habit, and together we can lead a quiet revolution of justice and mercy. That’s my dream. What’s yours?
— Nancy Oates

In the Big Muddy

A friend looked over GoTriangle’s newest plan to pay for the ever-escalating cost of the Nancy OatesDurham-Orange Light Rail and said Pete Seeger had it right: “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

Seeger’s ballad tells the story of an Army captain leading his platoon to cross a river without realizing that the river at that point is much deeper than when he crossed it upstream. After GoTriangle’s gleeful announcement last week that it had found a way to pay for the additional $254 million shortfall by extending the financing another eight years, I can see why “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” came to mind.

The total cost for DO-LRT has ballooned to $2.5 billion, up from the $1.8 billion a few months ago, in part because GoTriangle wisely is reporting the figures to reflect inflation. But to blithely imply that the overage has gone away because instead of paying a lump sum taxpayers will finance the amount for eight years is the sort of mindset that caused the economic implosion of 2008.

Missing from the discussion is how the counties are going to pay for an additional eight years of crushing debt. That’s not GoTriangle’s problem. The regional transit entity is raking in $700,000 per month as long as the DO-LRT notion stays alive, and that figure will rise once the engineering studies begin next month.

Chapel Hill is making plans for Bus Rapid Transit and will be competing for dollars from some of the same funding pots as DO-LRT — half-cent transit sales tax, vehicle registration fees and rental car taxes. The town expects UNC to share the cost of BRT. Will the tight-fisted state legislature, which contributes the bulk of UNC’s funding, factor in paying for DO-LRT for an additional eight years?

The new plan also erases the decision points about whether to continue into this morass of debt. When the Orange County Commissioners met in early December, the plan was that they would decide in April whether to proceed with the engineering studies. Now GoTriangle says it will start those studies in February, since it doesn’t have to wait for the counties to come up with the cash. That comes with a $70 million price tag. We’ve already heard GoTriangle say that having spent $700,000 a month for the past three years, the money would be wasted if we turned back now.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy? Or waste deep?
— Nancy Oates

To a Healthy New Year

My husband and I gave each other matching colds for Christmas this year, not the gifts Nancy Oateswe had intended, but a result of getting out and into the community more than I have in years past. When it comes to germs, especially in the holiday season, I’ve tried not to give back. And that means striking a balance between staying home from community events and risk people thinking I don’t care, or shaking hands and hoping I’m not still contagious.

Showing up and not shaking hands, however well-intentioned, is not an option for an elected official.

During my quarantine, I’ve had time to reflect on other times council members have had to find balance. The Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment offers a case study in unintended consequences and the need to find the sweet spot of a well-functioning community.

A prior council voted to allow by-right high-density development in an existing commercial area. The hope was to encourage greater commercial development, something the town desperately needs to offset its 85% residential tax base. But that council didn’t think through the need to add restrictions that would shape the commercial development the town envisioned. As a result, many independent retail businesses were run out of town and replaced by more residential units.

What was once a thriving small-business enclave that served nearby middle-class and working-class residents has been eliminated, replaced by apartments with rents higher than can be afforded by most jobs in Chapel Hill. Now Ram Development, having sold the commercial areas of 140 West, has plans to raze more commercial buildings and replace them with luxury apartments, in a flood plain, no less.

Residents and advisory boards tried to make the best of it, opening staff to the idea of turning strips of land flanking Booker Creek into usable greenspace and working with town staff to come up with guidelines to create a walkable retail and office center. But developers of chain stores and luxury apartments leaned hard on town staff to ignore the advice of the design consultant taxpayers hired and instead push for guidelines that would make it easier to turn Ephesus-Fordham into the strip-mall mess built in the New Hope Commons area along U.S. 15-501 in Durham.

The Community Prosperity Committee, now renamed Economic Sustainability – a subtle shift that supplants the good of the community with revenue generation at any cost – has been looking at ways to attract high-paying jobs to Chapel Hill to bring in residents who can afford the tsunami of pricey apartments and perhaps stave off our town becoming irrevocably a bedroom community.

Trying to find that balance involves tradeoffs. Will we be able to attract those high-paying jobs without having to buy them through incentives? Will we be able to persuade developers to build the office space that those high-paying businesses need? Or is asking a developer to shave off a bit of profit for the good of the community like asking an elected official to come to an event and not shake hands?

In 2017, let’s make choices that improve the health of Chapel Hill.
— Nancy Oates

Lights in the Darkness

The gifts have been unwrapped; the holiday feast reduced to leftovers. But I hope the Nancy Oateswarmth and joy and generosity of the season have stayed with you. If you need a booster shot of Christmas spirit — especially if the past several months of the presidential campaign and the past several days of the N.C. Legislature’s sore-loser shenanigans have taken a toll on you — take a look at Christmas lights, which likely will be twinkling all week long.

This year I needed what I call my comfort lights — my Top 3 favorite displays — and I was relieved to find that all three were lit again this year.

I started with my former neighborhood, Old Forest Creek, off Piney Mountain Road. The house on the corner of Old Forest Creek and Old Forest Creek has a terraced landscape, and lights drip from every level, giving the impression of a giant birthday cake. Phalanxes of candy canes and lollipops that change color add to the decorations, and colored balls of light hang from the branches of leafless trees. Drive around the Old Forest Creek circle for more displays, including one house that has twinkly lights splattered all across its front face and vertical strands spiking into thin air. Don’t overlook the cul-de-sacs.

Next, we went to my all-time favorite, a tree in Chandler’s Green that has wrapped every twig in red lights. Turn onto Sweeten Creek Drive from Sunrise Road, and the explosion of color is in front of the second house on the right. Mosey along Sweeten Creek, even after it turns into Perry Creek Drive for display after display of holiday lights. Those folks know how to use electricity for the benefit of all of us.

Just south of Hillsborough on N.C. 86 North, a house on the west side of the highway has a collection of lights that grows every year. I couldn’t tell whether the Santas outnumbered the Christmas trees, but the acreage has plenty of room for them to cavort with snowmen, candy canes and the major players in a nativity scene under the Star of Bethlehem. In the center of it all is a glowing message: Peace on Earth.

And because this time of year tends to yield some unexpected gift, we drove to the south end of Chapel Hill where one of our group had come across what will become a new favorite for us. On Old Lystra Road, just south of Mount Carmel Church Road, a tree worthy of the White House lawn stood dusted in white lights, with a glowing snowball at its peak.

Keep the holiday spirit alight within you all year long. We’re all going to need it.
— Nancy Oates

Giving back

When it comes to charitable giving, I wish “deep pockets” meant “bottomless resources.” But in Nancy Oatesreality, people and organizations have a finite amount of money they make available to donate to nonprofits. Competition for those dollars is fierce, as you may have guessed by the number of solicitations you have received in the past several weeks.

Now just in time to take advantage of the holiday spirit of giving, comes GoTriangle announcing a nonprofit foundation to reduce the $254 million shortfall for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.

The price tag for the 17-mile DOLRT that will connect UNC with Duke and now N.C. Central universities has risen to nearly $2 billion at the same time the state legislature has reduced the amount of money it will contribute and the federal government has slowed its rate of reimbursement (making Orange and Durham counties carry debt longer).

I’m not a fan of the DOLRT route. It will increase traffic because all of the new apartment complexes that will be built along the corridor. The UNC, Duke and NCCU faculty, staff and students who would be most helped by a train won’t be able to afford the rent in what will be pricey new housing. and those who will live in the new units will drive their cars for everything except their commute to work. Light rail would serve the community better if it ran along the already traffic-clogged U.S. 15-501, or from Chatham Park to campus, or to RDU or RTP.

Setting up a nonprofit foundation where donors may write off their contributions on their taxes raises that benefit almost to the level of boondoggle. I recall when some town residents asked the town to set up such a vehicle to help community members buy the American Legion property. Naysayers scoffed at the notion of raising a good portion of the $9 million asking price.

Would developers be more generous? Think how most have balked at meeting the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, saying “the numbers don’t work” for them to provide affordable units. So far, only Epcon Communities has met the requirements, paying about $900,000 as payment in lieu.

But let’s say GoTriangle’s foundation succeeds in raising that kind of cash. GoTriangle would have another $9 million to put toward the $254 million deficit.

With that same $9 million, local charities could do so much toward chipping away at some of our societal ills. Before you write a fat check to GoTriangle, check out what these local nonprofits do:

CASA, casanc.org
Community Home Trust, communityhometrust.org
EmPowerment, empowermentinc-nc.org
Habitat for Humanity, orangehabitat.org
IFC Community Kitchen, ifcweb.org
Table, tablenc.org

Happy holidays to you and yours, and our entire community.
— Nancy Oates