Views across the board

When my computer failed last month, I spent a few hours at the Apple Genius Bar, a sort of emergency room for digital devices in distress. As I waited for new software to install itself very slowly, I got to hear snippets of people’s lives as told through their troubled phones and iPads and MacBooks.

One young woman came in with a phone that had stopped doing the things she needed it to do. The good news, the Apple Genius told her, was that this was a software flaw that Apple would not only fix but upgrade for free, if she would surrender her phone for a couple days for the physical repair. The phone’s screen was cracked, though, and Apple would have to replace that, because the technicians would not be able to reassemble a cracked screen. It would cost her $150.

She was quiet for a moment. You could see the budget calculations going through her mind as clearly as if they were laid out in a thought bubble over her head. Finally, she said, “No, thanks.”

All of us lined up at the Genius Bar turned to look at her. Essentially a brand-new iPhone for $150. How could she turn it down? But she slipped the cracked phone back in her pocket and left the store.

I observed the opposite end of the financial spectrum last week at an OWASA board meeting when, during a discussion, I realized that I was perhaps the only one at the table who knew how much my monthly water bill was. Everyone else, it seemed, had automatic bill pay and had no idea how much water they used or what they paid for basic living expenses. The amounts were deducted from a bank account so deep they never thought about it running dry.

People from a wide range of life circumstances call Chapel Hill home. To make decisions that create an environment where people from one end of the wealth spectrum to the other can thrive, those of us on Town Council need their input.

Next month, council will vote on changes to rules about who can serve on advisory boards. One proposed change is to institute a “three strikes you’re out” policy whereby anyone missing three meetings in a row is automatically tossed off the board.

Certainly a chronically empty seat serves no one. But we don’t want to lose the valuable perspective of someone just because the store manager called them in for a last-minute shift or the car wouldn’t start or a child threw up. Whether to keep someone on the board is best left up to the board itself. We need to soften the language to give boards that discretion.

We make better decisions when we have information from different perspectives, from those who know the impact of an unexpected $150 expense, and from those who don’t even know what their expenses are.
— Nancy Oates


Do weather events seem more severe in recent years? The Triangle Regional Resilience Partnership checked our perceptions against the data and found that, yes, flooding of greater intensity happens more frequently, and droughts last longer.

The trajectory is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon, despite our efforts to take the bus more frequently or adjust our thermostats a few degrees. Our swelling population uses more resources. We need to build more places to live, and we need to move more people from place to place throughout the day. Even if we employ drones to deliver our groceries and dry cleaning, they need some form of energy to operate.

All of these stressors work together and take their toll. And after every major weather event, we need time for our economy to bounce back.

We can’t change the weather, but we can increase our resiliency.

The Triangle J Council of Governments (we are in the state’s Region J) partnered with the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center based at UNC-Ashville to conduct a quantified assessment over the past two years to help elected officials and senior staff concerned with health, infrastructure and agriculture identify vulnerable areas and figure out what investments would be most beneficial.

The team presented a summary of their 215-page report (available at on Nov. 9 to a gathering of elected officials, emergency services providers and municipal sustainability staff from the region. We learned the difference between vulnerability (how well-prepared a structure is to fend off damage from severe weather) and risk (the likelihood of a major event happening). We learned the benefits of creating a resiliency plan — higher bond rating and lower flood insurance rates. Maps identified socially vulnerable areas where residents had few resources to protect against damage and to bounce back after disaster strikes.

Strategies included reducing exposure, increasing adaptive capacity and supporting response and recovery. The presenters emphasized the value of working together to prepare for and recover from traumatic weather events.

One example: A large upstream basin shunts more water to a receiving watershed. If there is a significant size difference between the upstream basin and the receiving watershed, the downstream area will feel the brunt of the flooding damage, Understanding that connectivity might encourage the county with the large upstream basin to avoid overdevelopment there and encourage the county with the small watershed to expand it.

The researchers emphasized the importance of putting ordinances on the books to mandate thoughtful development. Chapel Hill already has good ordinances, but the rezoning and Special Use Permit process enable elected officials to exempt an applicant from these environmentally sound practices. Fortunately, we have town staff working diligently to mitigate harm on residents when council too blithely grants developers exemption from those laws.

Holding to our already sound ordinances would benefit our community every bit as much as all of us riding the bus.
— Nancy Oates

What Dylan Teaches About Aging

I went to a Bob Dylan concert at DPAC this past weekend, the first rock concert I’d been to in decades. What a change between then and now. One similarity, though: Audience members were still my peers age-wise. Back in the day, I went to concerts with other teenagers and 20-somethings. Last weekend’s Dylan concert attendees, almost without exception, would qualify for a 55+ community, as do I.

Dylan himself is 77, and I expect that he, like many of us in the audience, looked forward to the extra hour of sleep we’d get from turning the clocks back an hour to Standard Time.

In my youth, an 8 o’clock concert would start whenever the warm-up acts felt ready, or whenever the house filled sufficiently to generate some anticipatory excitement and noise. The headline performer rarely took the stage before 10. Dylan’s concert last weekend started promptly at 8. No prelude warm-up bands; Dylan and audience members alike wanted lights out by midnight.

The Dylan audience was well-behaved. When an announcement ordered people to keep their cell phones pocketed throughout the concert, people did. Orchestra seating replaced the mosh pit. Except for a couple of instances, people stayed seated. No one danced in the aisles. I recall leaving concert venues decades ago sweaty, exhausted and hoarse; my ears would ring for days afterward, and that just served to remind me of what a great time I’d had.

Not that the audience was short-changed by Dylan. He played nonstop for two hours, without so much as a bathroom break. The music ruled — he didn’t address the audience at all, not even to introduce his band. The music moved through him, albeit perhaps more stiffly than it did a half century ago.

And that’s exactly how it should have been. As we age, we don’t live at the intensity we did in our youth. Why should we? We have nothing left to prove, and we’ve earned discretionary use of our time.

So far, Chapel Hill has built one 55+ community of single-family houses (full disclosure: I live there) and has begun construction on a 55+ apartment building; another 55+ apartment building has been proposed. These are the only 55+ living options in Orange County.

For those developments to be successful and attract residents, they must offer some protection from the intensity of life elsewhere in town. Otherwise, seniors moving to Chapel Hill would select from among the many single-family houses, townhouses, duplexes or apartments that already exist.

Bob Dylan structured his concert to take into consideration the needs of his aging fan base. Chapel Hill can, too.
— Nancy Oates

Where are the Republicans?

When I turned 18, I registered to vote as a Democrat, and I haven’t wavered since. So why did I feel uneasy when I went to vote last week and saw a string of Democrats on the ballot running unopposed?

Orange County, with the vast majority of its population residing in the southern part of the county near the university, votes blue. Liberals seem to cluster in cities and university towns, which traditionally have more Democrats than Republicans. About 15% of the voters in Orange County register as Republican. So the odds of a Republican candidate besting a Democrat here are pretty long. Why put up a candidate who more than likely will lose?

Because when there is only one voice at the table, we all lose.

We need opposing viewpoints to bring out the best in one another. When one side puts forth an idea, the other side’s challenge to it can motivate the idea proposer to add details, think through the obstacles and refine the solution.

Every election in recent decades I am at the polls electioneering for the candidates I support. One year I overheard the supporter of a candidate I did not support tell a voter going into the polls, “[This candidate] is for affordable housing.”

It sounded great — who would be opposed to affordable housing? — but I knew this candidate had voted for things that made housing more expensive and had voted against things that would have increased the inventory of affordable units. If that Democratic candidate had had to worry about having a Republican challenger, that candidate might have put more thought into his/her votes.

We need people of opposing views keeping the discussion of issues alive all the way through until the last vote is tallied. Just because you might lose is no reason not to run. Vigorous debate keeps both sides on their toes, and we may find elections just a bit less polarizing.

If you haven’t voted yet, please do so. Early voting is open through this Saturday. And, of course, the polls are open on Election Day, Nov. 6, from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. Find dates, locations and hours at the Orange County Board of Elections website.
— Nancy Oates

Vote like it’s finals

After my first child was born, I considered making a career change that would involve going back to college for several classes. I lived in New York City at the time, and my babysitter was a student at a different college than the one I attended. All of us relied on public transit to get where we needed to go, and occasionally, when subways ran late, I either was late for class or brought my baby with me, or both. One day, I walked into class, late, with my baby and saw everyone else hunched over an exam I wasn’t expecting.

It was an awful feeling I never want to have again. Which is why, before I go to the polls, I study my sample ballot and get answers to any questions before I go in to vote.

Early voting continues through Saturday, Nov. 3. The last day to vote in these all-important midterm elections is on Election Day itself, Nov. 6.

There’s a lot on the ballot this year that affects our quality of life. Amendments to the state constitution; an affordable housing bond referendum; people in charge of soil and water conservation; judges; representatives in the General Assembly and the U.S. House.

Here is the link to the Orange County Board of Elections webpage that has links to sample ballots for the various districts. Most of Chapel Hill is in G004.

Take time to look over the ballot — front and back — and do your homework ahead of time. Make sure you know who and what you’re voting for before you fill out your ballot.
— Nancy Oates

How old is too old?

Age discrimination reared its ugly head at last week’s Town Council meeting. And this time, because we were talking about edifices, the youngster took the hit.

Staff made two proposals — the first to donate town-owned land to be used to relocate nearly century-old tiny houses to be used for affordable housing; and the second, in deciding what to do with the police station property, to consider only options that would tear down the existing building because, now 30-some years old, it is “too old” to be renovated.

The four cottages were built in the 1920s from kits ordered out of a Sears catalog. Ranging in size from 366 sft to 756 sft, they were erected after WWI as faculty housing. Author John Grisham bought them in 2016, because they were adjacent to a large historic house he bought at the same time. He wanted to tear them down to gain more privacy and parking.

Grisham petitioned the Historic District Commission for permission to demolish the homes. Because state law allows a property owner to demolish a house after 365 days if the petition is denied, Chapel Hill’s HDC granted the ask, but with a 365-day waiting period in which to negotiate a way to save the homes. But when the HDC extended an invitation to talk, Grisham ignored it.

Once the yearlong waiting period had passed, town staff asked council to donate some town-owned lots in Northside to Self-Help to be used for the four cottages, which Grisham would donate to the nonprofit, reaping a tax write-off of about $900,000 that would put about $300,000 in his pocket.

Town staff did not indicate whether they explored what condition the cottages were in; what would happen to the land if they did not survive the move; and who would pay to bring them up to code. (They lose their historic status once they are moved from their original location.)

But the concrete commercial building constructed in the 1980s? “Too old,” staff scoffed. It must be demolished.

I don’t know how much taxpayers spent to build the police station, but I would be surprised if the town expected to tear it down 30 years later.

We are preparing to spend $34 million on a new police station on land that UNC agreed to rent to us for 30 years. I was concerned that we were spending so much without a guarantee that the lease would be renewed. Is town staff expecting that the new station won’t last more than 30 years?

To be better stewards of taxpayer funds, we need to make sure that the new building lasts more than 30 years. Even if the town has grown so much by then that it has outgrown the new police station, as it has the current one, we need to be able to repurpose the building. We build our houses to outlast our mortgages, to be updated and resold. We need to view our town assets with the same perspective of investing in what will last.
— Nancy Oates

Where’s that hatchet?

During the inter-city visit to Lawrence, Kan., last month, some of us went to a hatchet bar. (No taxpayer dollars were spent there.) It’s like darts, only with a hatchet thrown into a thick, wooden wall, instead of a pin in a corkboard. It’s harder than it looks, and very few in our group were able to do it. I couldn’t, either, on my first two tries. Then the manager came over and showed me how to hold the hatchet and how far away from the wall to stand. I followed her instructions, and on my next throw, I got the hatchet to stick. Everyone cheered.

The next morning, one of the men in our group said, “I have never seen so much anger on a woman’s face as when you threw the hatchet.” Odd, because I wasn’t feeling angry. I was just being an Oates: Focus; get the job done. I wondered whether he would have interpreted my concentration as anger if I were a man, and if so, would it be unusual enough for him that he would comment to me about it.

Last week Brett Kavanaugh showed us what anger on the face of a man looks like. After his mortifying meltdown in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the subsequent vote by the Senate to appoint him to the Supreme Court, I sensed that something basic to society had been irreparably broken. Four Republican women, 45 Republican men and one male Democrat are so inured to tyrannical behavior that Kavanaugh’s bullying tantrum seemed acceptable to them.

Some people have found that those outbursts are worth the embarrassment to themselves. The response from typically socialized people when confronted with such hysterics is to back off. Let this person have his way; the issue isn’t important enough to engage with that irrationality. Does Kavanaugh think that’s how the justices of the Supreme Court will respond?

Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan I’m sure have dealt with people like this over the course of their careers. They will know how to handle him. But, idealist that I am, I thought the Supreme Court would be a safe haven from, well, jerks.

With Kavanaugh’s appointment, a third of the men on the Supreme Court have been accused of sexual assault or harassment; that’s an overrepresentation than in the population at large. And this is the deliberative body that holds our freedoms in their power.

Women my age feel the pain acutely; we have fought so many battles for our daughters over the decades. Our victories have been hard won, and now we see that they are only temporary. We are old; we are tired; and clearly our race is not yet over.

And to my colleague in Kansas — look at my face now. This is what anger on the face of a woman looks like. You’ll recognize it in a lot of the faces around you.
— Nancy Oates

What happens in Lawrence …

At the very last session on our intercity visit to Lawrence, Kan., participants stood up, Quaker meeting style, to say thank you to someone or to commit to something. It had been a jam-packed, eye-opening, exhausting three days, and we were trying to synthesize all we had learned before climbing back aboard the bus and heading to the airport.

We had just finished recording our Five Big Things (which got compressed down to three, given our fatigue and tight time schedule) on sheets of newsprint and draped them over a chair. I wanted to make sure those brainstormings made it off the page, so I publicly committed to seeing that the good ideas the trip had inspired for what might be possible in Chapel Hill be unpacked and tried on once we got home.

Another council member edited my declaration into a sound bite: “Make sure what happens in Lawrence doesn’t stay in Lawrence.”

A few enterprises made it worth taxpayers sending every member of council on the trip. First, was the Bioscience and Technology Business Center. Built on 80 acres of endowment land on the University of Kansas campus, the bio-tech business hub comprises a mix of established corporations and start-ups. Funding is 60% private and 40% public monies. All decisions about the hub are made jointly by the university, the private-sector partners and the town; each entity gets only one vote, which motivates the three parties to cooperate and collaborate.

The university’s tech transfer office makes its home there, and the next phase of construction will include a 20,000-square-foot daycare center. A hotel and conference center have already broken ground nearby, and plans are underway for residences just outside the campus perimeter.

Next up was a tour of Peaslee Tech and Lawrence College and Career Center. Because the technical school and career center don’t accept Pell Grants nor make federally funded loans, the two institutions have much greater decision-making flexibility, unimpeded by federal regulations.

The tech school and career center don’t train any student for a job that pays less than a living wage. None pays less than $15 an hour. Because the school and center leverage apprenticeships, students make a living wage while learning. The curriculum teaches green deconstruction of buildings; repair and maintenance of machines that make parts; plumbing, electrical and HVAC; and carpentry. The buildings were financed by 11 banks that pooled resources to make the loan.

On our final day, we toured Sports Pavilion Lawrence, a 180,000-square-foot indoor sports center, free to all town and county residents and KU students. In addition to basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts, the center has areas for gymnastics, indoor soccer field, cardio and weight rooms and a wellness center that includes physical therapy. The center draws more than 20 tournaments a year, which brings in money toward operating costs and boosts revenue from hotel occupancy taxes.

Seeing success in other towns gave me hope that there is more to development than luxury apartments.
— Nancy Oates

The cost of crime

In the U.S. 1 in 4 of us has a criminal record; 4 in 4 of us have a criminal history.

Ever driven over the speed limit? Had a drink while underage? Inhaled? Three out of 4 of us are the lucky ones, to have had the luxury of not getting caught.

Last Thursday, the town’s Justice In Action Committee co-sponsored “The Crushing Impact of Criminal Justice Debt in Orange County,” a forum at Town Hall on the costs of getting caught. Fines are meant to be punitive, a hurt to remind you not to do that again. Court costs and fees are not designed as deterrents, but they begin accruing as soon as the police officer hands you a speeding ticket. While the fine is $30, court costs add another $188 to what you must pay before the ticket is resolved.

The forum’s guest speakers — retired Orange County public defender James E. Williams Jr.; Gene Nichol, UNC law school professor (and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, before UNC’s Board of Governors shut it down); and UNC Law research associate Heather Hunt — delineated some of the hardships endured by low-wealth defendants from court costs and fees.

The main speakers were followed by a panel consisting of retired UNC Law professor Rich Rosen; UNC School of Government’s public policy department chair Jamie Markham; Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris; Quisha Mallette, a lawyer with UNC Law’s Immigration Clinic; and Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin, who had been a lawyer with the Center for Civil Rights before the Board of Governors neutered that, too.

What are some of these costs and fees? After you are arrested and fork over the nonrefundable 10-15% of bail that a bail bondsman takes if you don’t have cash in hand to pay the court, you must pay $60 to ask for a court-appointed lawyer. Probation costs $40 a month, and community service is a flat $250. A split sentence costs $40 a day for any time spent in jail. Every court appearance may mean asking for time off from work or finding childcare.

There are another couple dozen or so fees that the court could waive, if you know to ask. But over the past few years, the N.C. General Assembly has made it increasingly onerous for judges to waive fees.

Stop by the courthouse on any given day, and it may seem like the vast majority of defendants are poor. But bear in mind that those of us with financial means often can hire lawyers to appear in our stead.

Judges need to be able to level the playing field for those who are not so lucky. Why impose crushing fees on people who have no hope of paying them? Fines and court-ordered punishment are sufficient deterrents. If society covered court costs and fees collectively through our taxes, we would have incentive to invest in education and enrichment opportunities for youth so that crime doesn’t seem the most attainable option.
— Nancy Oates

The Florence side of trees

After our week of worry, it feels like we dodged a bullet when Hurricane Florence shifted south. In Chapel Hill, the power outages were short-lived, the flooding no worse than expected, and no one has died. Those of us who lived here through Hurricane Fran feel a guilty relief — and empathy after seeing the devastation in the towns in Florence’s new path that weren’t as prepared as we were.

A special thank you to town employees who staffed a call center around the clock for a few days to provide human-to-human information for people who needed non-emergency assistance during the uncertainty of the storm. This supplemented the terrific job emergency responders do on a routine basis.

I felt particularly safe, cocooning in my brand-new neighborhood that has large trees only on three sides of the development. Having had the privilege of living in Chapel Hill for more than 20 years in houses shaded by very large, leafy trees, I know the pros and cons. After soldiering through Fran and numerous ice storms and large snowfalls, I deliberately chose a house smack in the middle of the new development, as far away from any mature trees as possible. I’m a tree NIMBY — I love trees, but not in my backyard.

I recall a friend coming over to see my new house and commenting, in a condescending tone, “I couldn’t possibly live in a place without trees.”

I thought at the time: “Then you haven’t been paying attention to development in Chapel Hill.”

My friend will be in for a shock. For those who love trees, the past few years have been disturbing at best, and looking ahead, the distress continues. It seems like every month we see a new swath of land clear-cut to prepare for development already approved or anticipated. And our council docket promises even more to come.

New development means sacrificing trees. Yet trees and green space provide documented benefits for mental and physical health. As density increases, the need for green becomes all the more crucial.

As development projects come before council, we need to pay attention to how many, what size and what type of trees will be planted as replacements for the mature trees taken down.

We also need to respect the few remaining parcels of land that could become permanently protected greenspace where the public can gather without having to pay. The more development that springs up around the American Legion property, the stronger the case for preserving the entire 36 acres as community gathering space.

I want to welcome more people and businesses to our town. That means removing trees by the acre. But we don’t have to “live without trees.” We can preserve acres more, if we choose that path.
— Nancy Oates