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, 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

— 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

The flummox of FLUM

The gavel came down on our final meeting of the 2019 fiscal year at 11:34 p.m. last Wednesday night. Community members packed the auditorium at Town Hall at the beginning of the meeting for various last-minute petitions, and many town residents stayed almost all the way to the end to weigh in on the Future Land Use Map.

The FLUM, as we call it affectionately, colors in parcels of land based on the intended density. It’s not legally binding, but it provides a rationale for council decisions to upzone land for redevelopment. For more than a year, town staff have been reaching out to the community to gather reactions and ideas for what the town should look like in 2049. At one point the staff member leading the FLUM and LUMO rewrite (aka the Land Use Management Ordinance) reported collecting comments from nearly 1,500 people.

I expect that nearly all of them responded with something along the lines of: Pay attention to the carrying capacity of the land. Don’t clearcut all the trees; don’t flood our homes; don’t tie us up in traffic jams.

Yet the map we reviewed last week had encroached on many single-family-home neighborhoods by replacing houses with apartment buildings six stories high and taller. Many of those neighborhoods are relatively affordable. Residents of those houses objected.

Ironically, earlier in the evening we had reviewed town staff’s plan for affordable rental housing. The upshot of that discussion was that it was going to be very difficult to wring more affordable units from developers. If we wanted housing for a workforce earning less than 50% of the Area Median Income, likely the subsidy would come from taxpayers.

We, on council, need to think through any unintended consequences and be consistent. We can’t ask taxpayers to subsidize housing to make it affordable to many who work in town while at the same time taking away the older homes that currently provide that workforce housing.

— Nancy Oates

Late night

I blame the lateness of the hour for someone on the council dais suggesting that a retaining wall designed to mitigate flooding include “breaks” to “engage the street.”

The comment came during a concept plan we were asked to review that didn’t being on our overstuffed agenda until after 11:30 p.m. We were all tuckered out, and civility and information processing had begun to fray. The person on the dais did not understand that a retaining wall would not be visible from the street and would have to be continuous to hold back water and soil to protect a row of townhouses — built about 15 feet below grade on a downhill slope from the street — from flooding.

By the time I got in my car to go home after our council meeting and closed session last week, it was 12:30 in the morning. We don’t make our best decisions when we are that tired. Concept plans, always last on the agenda, introduce proposed developments that affect the quality of life of residents. It undermines transparency if we require community members to stay until midnight to hear a presentation and make their 3-minute comment.

In recent months, council has reduced the number of meetings without reducing the number of issues we take up. We pack agendas, and meetings routinely run past 11:30 p.m. That shuts out the public who have days that begin early, babysitters to pay and responsibilities outside of keeping tabs on council. Without input from the public, we make decisions in a vacuum.

Most council members work full time, but we knew the council workload before we filed to run for office. If we spread out our agenda items over four meetings a month, instead of cramming the issues into only three meetings a month, we likely would end before 10 p.m., which was typical of council meetings in prior years.

There is considerable value to having residents listen to a presentation in real time and offer comments before council begins to discuss. When those presentations begin later than when we might reasonably expect people to stay, we inadvertently restrict public comment. That’s not a healthy democracy.

We’re spending taxpayers’ money; we’re making decisions that affect residents’ quality of life. We owe it to the public to include them in the decision-making process by taking up issues at a reasonable hour.

— Nancy Oates

Kneecapping our best intentions

Chapel Hill residents take housing affordability seriously. Are we on Town Council poised to undermine progress we’ve made?

The budget we passed last week included a property tax increase that would fund the $10 million bond voters approved last year to be spent on increasing the supply of affordable housing.

Some years back, council approved accessory dwelling units almost everywhere in town with the intent of increasing the supply of affordable housing.

This week, council will take up the issue of short-term rentals, such as AirBnB and VRBO. One of the ideas proposed during the Economic Sustainability Committee meeting earlier this month was that those ADUs be approved as short-term rentals.

Under current law, property owners can build a garage apartment or small detached house on the same lot as a larger house in a single-family residential neighborhood. Due to their small size and lack of amenities available in an apartment complex (no swimming pool, gym equipment or tanning beds), they would command lower rent than a traditional house or apartment. They might also draw students away from larger rental homes, leaving those available for families.

Anecdotally, I’ve learned from people who own units they rent out on AirBnB and the like that short-term rentals are much more lucrative than renting the place under a year-long lease and is less wear-and-tear on the unit.

The Orange County Visitors Bureau estimates that short-term rentals in Chapel Hill generated about $5 million for homeowners in last year, a 40% increase over the prior year. The town sees very little of that revenue reflected in occupancy taxes. Despite more than 300 units in Chapel Hill listed on AirBnB and similar sites, only a handful of property owners (think single digits) have applied for a permit that would ensure they comply with health and safety standards.

If we allow whole-house short term rentals, including ADUs, what impact will that have on the supply of affordable housing voters have made clear they want to increase? While owners of ADUs understandably want to make extra income from their assets, would we be funneling to them the property tax increase voters intended to fund affordable housing?

— Nancy Oates

If we build it …

Which came first — residents with a plethora of discretionary income? Or craft breweries, tapas bars and the availability of Starbucks’ White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino on every street corner?

If we build it, they will come, goes the adage. Last Friday morning at the town’s Economic Sustainability Committee meeting, Alisa Duffey Rogers, project manager of the Future Land Use Map and the rewrite of the Land Use Management Ordinance, presented photos of her vision for downtown — clusters of tall apartment buildings wrapped around parking decks with ritzy retail shops at the base, made to order for those with plenty of disposable income perched in town temporarily.

Certainly, developers will rush to build such high-profit luxury living spaces. And certainly, we need residents with considerable discretionary income to support businesses in town. But those businesses and our main employers can’t run without employees — people to cook, serve and clean in restaurants; municipal employees; junior professors, support staff and groundskeepers on campus; nurses, technicians, and laundry and food service workers at the hospitals.

As towns around us grow, modestly paid workers will have employment options that don’t require commuting to Chapel Hill. We need to build homes for “the missing middle,” those in the 80% to 120% Area Median Income.

To that end, economic development officer Dwight Bassett proposed that the town buy the Lakeview mobile home park land for $5 million and redevelop it.

The town has no money to redevelop the land anytime soon, given commitments we’ve already made, such as a new municipal services center, but town ownership of the land would remove pressure on Lakeview residents to relocate in the near future.

Nevertheless, a consultant presented various redevelopment options to create — repeat the refrain — a vibrant, walkable community. He panned the barracks-style housing of multifamily units and townhouses lined up cheek-by-jowl in straight rows, edged by barely a fringe of grass. He claimed that development did not have to be dense, and showed a drawing of two-story apartment buildings.

His pitch and pictures seemed very much like what we had envisioned for the town-owned land at 2200 Homestead Road that Town Council designated as a combination of market-rate units sufficient to subsidize an equal number of affordable units. But when we turned it over to staff, we got back barracks-style units, block-y apartment buildings and a communal living building with no target tenant. And the cluster of tiny homes had been erased. A majority on council shrugged it off.

What makes us think the Lakeview project would have a different outcome? And what makes us think that a low-density development would be financially feasible for the town when professional developers say only high-density makes the numbers work?

The consultant flashed figures of wealth levels of town residents, indicating that two-thirds of Chapel Hill’s population is considered high-wealth (he did not define the term). He did not stratify the pay levels of the jobs in Chapel Hill. Yet that’s what we need to focus on. To ensure a stable, well-functioning town, we need to build for the people who work here.

— Nancy Oates

Wealth gap

I say this every year at budget time. Call it my annual screed: A flat percentage salary increase across the whole pay scale widens the wealth gap. The rich get richer, and the poor end up with comparatively less buying power.

This year, the town’s 3% across-the-board pay raise will put an extra $900 (before taxes are withheld) in the pocket of an employee making $30,000 a year. Employees making $200,000 receive an extra $6,000. Because of the state and federal tax cuts — that in reverse Robin Hood style take from the poor and give to the rich — employees on the high end of the pay scale get to keep more of their raises.

I have in the past, and again this year, suggested that employees making the equivalent of the Area Median Income (about $80,000 right now) or some other reasonable cut-off point (maybe everyone earning less than six figures) receive a 3% raise, while those making above that amount get a 2% raise. Or perhaps take a fiscal “leap year” periodically in which everyone receives the same $1,000 pay raise to hit “pause” on the widening wealth gap.

Every year, council votes it down.

Council members who support applying a flat percentage pay raise across the spectrum argue that highly paid employees would feel dissed if they received a lower percent or the same amount as their lower-paid co-workers. The highly paid employees might start looking for jobs elsewhere, those council members say.

Maybe. But people who are drawn to government work (and nonprofits — I say this as a former nonprofit and government worker) generally are motivated more by the ability to make a difference in someone’s quality of life than they are by getting rich. If they left for a municipality that paid more, it would be to a bigger town with more bureaucracy and less personal working conditions. And if someone is working only for the money, he or she may not go the extra mile that someone who believes in the value of the work occasionally will.

Unlike in the private sector, no one in municipal government generates revenue. Every pay raise comes at the expense of taxpayers, who are the only revenue source government organizations have.

From an economic vantage point, those on the lower end of the pay scale are more likely to spend their raises and stimulate the economy. Those on the higher end will be more likely to stash the extra income in an ever-growing brokerage account, benefiting further from decisions made by businesses to increase shareholder returns, which often involve keeping wages low and hiring the fewest number of employees to run the organization.

As taxpayers, we are investing in our employees to run a healthy organization. We need to invest in all of our employees, not just the ones at the top.

— Nancy Oates