News on the Move

When the Chapel Hill News began publishing recipes on its front page — sometimes recipes from restaurants in Raleigh — we knew its marriage to The News & Observer was on the skids. Today the breakup becomes official. As you read this, the sole reporter and her editor are cleaning out their desks and moving in with the Durham Herald-Sun.

For the first time in 94 years, Chapel Hill will not have a newspaper in town.

Louis Graves opened The Chapel Hill Weekly in 1923. Though the paper has gone from publishing weekly to daily to thrice a week and now twice, and has changed ownership a few times, some version of the Chapel Hill News has been in Chapel Hill since the paper’s birth. Starting Tuesday, it will operate out of Durham under the auspices of The Herald-Sun and will no longer be affiliated with The N&O.

In 1954, Graves sold the newspaper to Orville Campbell. In 1963, Campbell moved the six full-time staff to 501 W. Franklin St., which he had purchased and named the Bentley Building (his middle name, and his mother’s maiden name). He bought 503, next door, for Colonial Press. A decade later, the news staff had ballooned to 50 and had outgrown the Bentley Building. Campbell moved the entire operation a scootch west to 505 W. Franklin, which became the Chapel Hill News Building. The News rented out space to a variety of tenants over the years, including Algonquin Press and the Chapel Hill Board of Realtors.

In 1987, Campbell sold the paper to Ottaway Newspapers, which also published The Wall Street Journal. In 1993, the paper changed hands again, this time purchased by The N&O. In 1995, McClatchy Corp. bought The N&O, and with it, the Chapel Hill News.

The Chapel Hill News printing press closed in the early 2000s, and the building was sold to Scott Maitland, owner of Top of the Hill, who started a distillery in the space where the press used to roll. The news staff remained at the 505 building, which was informally dubbed “the Chapel Hill Booze Building,” until last year, when the dwindling news staff moved to The Center office complex at 1504 E. Franklin St.

Last December, McClatchy acquired The Herald-Sun from Paxton Media Group. Squeezing The Herald-Sun into the press rotation at McClatchy’s print facility in Garner required the Durham paper to move up its deadlines, leaving that much less time to update breaking stories. The Chapel Hill Herald has ceased publication.

Much is still unknown about how the transfer will affect delivery of the Chapel Hill News, which used to be inserted into The N&O or delivered separately and for free to non-N&O subscribers.

But Tammy Grubb, the reporter who for years has written the entire Chapel Hill News almost singlehandedly, will spend most of her time in Chapel Hill, camping out at the library and various coffee shops with free wifi as she writes up stories on the news she covers in town. She and editor Mark Schultz both used to work for The Herald-Sun, so it will be almost like coming home, in the Robert Frost sense of “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

They, like us, will be anxious to see how this new union will work out. In the meantime, watch your driveway for a newspaper.
— Nancy Oates

Funding Our Bubble

Chapel Hill’s bubble has been both boasted about and blasted, depending on the politics of the critic. We have a reputation of being a haven for bleeding-heart liberals, a sanctuary city in sentiment and practice, albeit not codified. But a sneak peek at the proposed Trump administration budget indicates that our bubble is about to be burst.

This could be a test of how much we’re willing to sacrifice to live up to what we say we believe to be important. If the Trump budget comes to pass, we won’t have the luxury of taxpayers across the country chipping in to support our values.

Though a detailed budget has not been brought forth, the outline made public last week reveals a spending redistribution that those of my ilk find alarming. Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been slashed by a third. State Department programs that give aid to war-torn countries and subsidize flights to rural airports have been all but eliminated. Public education, public transportation and public housing funding has been gutted. And the Community Development Block Grants that support our safety net of social services in the community will be snuffed out entirely.

What does this mean for the secure community we have built in Chapel Hill? If we want to preserve the quality of life measures we have tried to extend to everyone in the community, we’ll have to set our priorities, and decide to what extent local taxpayers are willing to fund them.

One of the hardest hit areas will be affordable housing, something every council member has campaigned on, in part because we know how important that is to so many residents. About 45% of the town’s public housing budget comes from HUD. And even before any cuts were announced, the town’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board had recommended a “Nickel for Housing” tax increase.

CDBG contributes about another $400,000 a year to programs like Meals on Wheels, a youth employment program and sprucing up public housing neighborhoods.

Education cuts could affect subsidies for public school pre-K, among other enrichments for our next generation of leaders.

Federal infrastructure cuts also threaten the reimbursement we hope to get by going forward with the light rail plan. Taxpayers would be on the hook for any and all shortfalls, not to mention all cost overruns.

Now is not the time to add extra financial obligations to local taxpayers. Encourage Orange County commissioners to postpone approving our involvement in light rail. We need to restore our bubble first.
— Nancy Oates

Bargaining Power

People love to feel special. Sales agents make a living by understanding the power of “just for you”: “I don’t usually do this, but just for you, I’ll …” It closes the deal and mitigates buyer’s remorse.

But “just for you” would lose its value if there were no standards or rules to push back against. Rules enable the exceptions that make people feel they’ve scored a bonus no one else got.

Over the years that I’ve watched or participated in Town Council meetings, I’ve seen this duality of rules and exceptions play out every time a developer presents a project for council approval. Those intertwined notions of rules and exceptions took center stage at the March 6 council meeting as we struggled with refining regulations for the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code.

The two concepts we spent the most time on were block length and open space.

The specter of enabing another Alexan-type building – that cruise ship run aground look – prompted some of us to scrutinize block length closely. Regulations put in place after Alexan was approved cap block length at 400 feet, with a mandatory cut-through at 200 feet or less. The manager can boost the block length 10% to 440 feet, and the Community Design Commission can approve up to 600 feet in the face of extenuating circumstances. The proposal before us last Monday was to up the baseline to 450 feet, at a developer’s request, and the cut-through to 330 feet, with staff allowing an extra 10%.

On the issue of open space – green space, such as a pocket park, or a plaza or civic space, such as dedicating a room for community use in an otherwise private building – the form-based code had no such requirement coming into the meeting. Four advisory boards recommended unanimously to require 8% of each parcel be open space, but town staff countered with 5%. Mayor Hemminger suggested a compromise: 8% with the ability to negotiate a lesser amount, down to 5%, if the developer provided other incentives – for instance, making the building more energy efficient or providing shared parking.

The haggle factor, along with my desire to encourage walkability through shorter blocks and breathability through more open space, pushed me to vote against the staff recommendations of a 450-foot block baseline and 5% open space. Form-based code projects require approval only by staff and the Community Design Commission (and the town manager can overrule the CDC’s decision).

To operate in the best interests of the community, the staff needs to have some bargaining power. In the case of the developer who wants a 450-foot block, the town could negotiate getting a patio with planters and benches for the public if the baseline were 400 feet. But if the form-based code specs are tailored to meet developers’ needs already, we’ll never get that little respite space or anything else on our wish list.

My vote against the staff recommendation last week was a vote for empowering town staff, to give them the tools they need to operate in the best interests of the community, to give them the power of “just for you.”
— Nancy Oates

The Gift of Rezoning

Town Council gave the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools a gift last week. But school board members, perhaps dismayed that they didn’t get what they came for, may not have noticed what they got instead.

The school board has proposed expanding the existing building at Lincoln Center to centralize preschool classes now spread out across the district and building a new facility for Phoenix Academy, the high school for students who thrive under specialized attention. To accomplish this, the board needs Town Council to rezone the 12.6-acre parcel from Residential-3 to Office/Institutional-1-Conditional, and approve a Special Use Permit.

In the rezoning public hearing, council members raised some concerns, particularly about traffic during the dropoff and pickup hours spilling out onto Merritt Mill Road and causing rush-hour backups. The discussion evolved into diversity issues, how families without a car would be affected and which families are given top priority in getting in to preschool. We also learned more about the success of Phoenix Academy.

As the night wore on, it became clear that council did not yet have enough answers to vote on the SUP, so we continued the public hearing until March 13. Not wanting to send the school board away empty-handed, we did vote to approve the rezoning to O/I-1-C.

The new zoning remains in effect for a year. If council does not approve an SUP by then, the zoning reverts to its former R-3 category.

Even with that expiration date built in, I had to overcome my misgivings about approving a rezoning without an SUP. Several years ago, a former neighbor of mine wanted to sell the acreage around her house to have money for her retirement. She worked out a lovely small subdivision plan with a developer who said he would buy the land if she got it rezoned. She did but did not apply for an SUP for the plan. Once the rezoning went through, the developer bought the land from her and immediately flipped it to another developer who built the maximum allowable square footage in the form of student rentals. My neighbor lived out her Golden Years in a student ghetto.

Certainly the school board would never abuse a similar opportunity. The board has a plan that has been in the works for a while. Still, council gave the board another option to tuck in its back pocket.

Developers would pay handsomely for nearly 13 acres of buildable land already zoned for high density so close to downtown. Last year, Woodfield developers offered $11 million for the 36-acre American Legion property, only about two-thirds of which could be built on, even knowing they would have to go through the lengthy rezoning and SUP process, not to mention land remediation.

With a multi-million-dollar sale, the school board could renovate the existing preschool spaces, rent office space for the Lincoln Center administrative staff and still have money to find new space for Phoenix Academy.

It may not be what the school board had in mind. But having another option never hurts.
— Nancy Oates

Raising children or the flag?

Whether the Confederate flag symbolizes racial oppression or Southern pride may hinge on the difference between desegregation and integration.

A group of parents has asked the Orange County Board of Education to ban images of the Confederate flag, calling it a racially inflammatory symbol that disrupts learning. So far, the board has remained as silent as the statue of Sam on the UNC campus.

At the school board’s Feb. 27 meeting, parents plan to ask that the matter be slated for the board’s agenda in the near future so that the issue can be discussed and the board can explain its stance. Community members have tried to make themselves heard at prior board meetings but have been unsuccessful.

On one occasion when several people planned to speak during the public comment period, the board moved up the meeting time by a half hour with insufficient notice. When parents arrived to speak, they were too late. At the Feb. 13 meeting, community members wishing to speak on the topic were locked out. The sign-up sheet was set up outside the building; those wanting to speak on innocuous topics such as the spelling bee were escorted in through another door.

For years, the Orange County school board had a dress code that banned “racially inflammatory” attire. But last March, the board deleted that phrase with no explanation.

The N.C. Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans charged the N.C. chapter of the NAACP of waging a “campaign of willful ignorance and race baiting” for siding with parents who want the Confederate flag kept out off school grounds. The Hate-Free Schools Coalition took a more measured tone, acknowledging that not everyone who has a Confederate flag is an extremist or racist, while pointing out that the flag triggers anxiety in some students of color who wonder whether those flag-displaying classmates — or teachers — “would prefer for [minority students] not to be there.”

That alone should be enough for the school board to ban the flag. They don’t call the elementary, middle and high school days “the formative years” for nothing. Children are solidifying their sense of self and place in the world. Do they see themselves as capable and valued in the school setting that comprises the majority of their waking hours? Or do they try to form their identity under the weight of school authorities who sanction the belief that people of color should be nothing more than chattel?

Did North Carolina schools truly integrate black culture and white culture? Or did schools simply desegregate, allowing black students into a white world, expecting them to navigate white privilege that does not respect black society?

At the college level, the flag would be a free speech issue. But not with children younger than that. It is the job of all elected officials, all adults, to let children come into their own in a world that treats every one of them with equal value.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27, at A.L. Stanback Middle School, 3700 N.C. 86 South, just north of New Hope Church Road.
— Nancy Oates

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