Another side of Chapel Hill

I suppose on some level I realized that when I read the staid reports ofNancy Oates drug arrests printed in the newspaper’s police blotter not all of those suspects submitted to custody willingly. But this is Chapel Hill. Those drug busts you see on TV — armed officers surrounding a car or battering down a door — they just don’t happen here, right?

Oh, but they do. And even more typical scenarios — a couple at home in a loud fight; a well-being check on a neighbor who has been going through rough times; a possible burglary in progress in broad daylight — are rife with risk that police officers have to be able to assess in an instant. Overlooking something could cost officers and others their lives.

At the Community Police Academy I attended last week, Chapel Hill Police gave us a peak at a side of our community I was glad I don’t have to see every day. And by the time our classes ended, I felt relieved that we, as a town, are in such good hands. CHPD officers have the training and the tools, along with good judgment and unflappability, to handle just about any situation I could imagine and some that I couldn’t.

A theme throughout the 8 ½ hours of classes was selecting the right tool for the situation. In our session on lethal versus non-lethal force, the bravest among us volunteered to respond as police officers to virtual calls via interactive videos in a simulator. The scenario would unfold differently, depending on the volunteer’s actions. Volunteers had an array of options — pepper spray, a Taser, a firearm — and the choice police rely on most frequently, their mouths. Police often can reduce the risk in a situation by what they say. Not so, the rest of us. Suffice it to say, our volunteers had a high mortality rate. I came away with words of wisdom worth taping on my refrigerator: The best way to win a fight is to not get in one.

In other sessions, we learned what investigators do at a crime scene to collect evidence that will stand up in court, beginning with a search warrant. The officers debunked some elements of TV crime shows: In real life, a DNA analysis can’t be done in 60 seconds.

In other sessions, we saw demonstrations of the K-9 unit and the rescue of a wounded victim by using an armored vehicle and sharpshooters. We learned what the crisis team responds to, including the astounding number of domestic violence incidents and having to inform families of a death. We revealed some of our biases in a session on Fair and Impartial Policing. We saw an amazing array of equipment — cameras to see under doors or up in attics, flashing light balls to distract perpetrators, bars to break windows and doors, a 50-pound armored vest — none of it fresh-out-of-the-box shiny new. And the officers had stories to go with all of it.

Our community survey, year after year, confirms that people in Chapel Hill feel safe. After completing the Community Police Academy, I can see why.
– Nancy Oates


Years ago, Chapel Hill adopted a campaign contribution policy to encourage Nancy Oatesvoter-owned elections and make it harder for donors to “buy” elections. Individual campaign donations were limited to $336, a sharp contrast to the $5,100 limit for county commissioner, U.S. president and other partisan elections. Given the recent news about campaign finances of council member Donna Bell and former mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, it appears that developers, many of them not voters, own Chapel Hill elections.

A story in the April 3 edition of the Chapel Hill Herald looked at Bell’s end-of-year campaign finance report that was due Jan. 31 but which Bell filed March 11, and noted that of the $13,743 Bell raised in her 2015 Town Council re-election campaign, $10,294 came from developers or their family members. Many of those developer-related contributions were from out-of-state firms that had projects in Chapel Hill approved by council in the months before the election. George Cianciolo and County Commissioner Barry Jacobs took this approach, too, in their campaigns.

Campaign contributions by themselves don’t mean an elected official is bought and paid for. Political influence is rarely so crude as to ask for a favor in exchange for a donation. People and organizations donate to candidates who are most likely to represent the donors’ interests. What troubles me is that those elected officials did not report the contributions when they came in, instead waiting until after the election to make them public; that the out-of-state donors benefited financially from those votes; and that Bell has voted in favor of projects by some of her big donors in at least two instances since she was re-elected (East-West Partners’ The Station and Scott Murray’s Stancill Drive Car Wash).

In the Herald article, Bell stated that she raised so much money because the “dynamics of the campaign changed my tactics.” Developers from all over lent a hand, and the principle of voter-owned elections fell by the wayside.

The editor in me has nits to pick about Bell’s disbursements, too. Her financial forms leave blank a box that requires her to explain why she paid $2,000 to Mark McCurry, her campaign manager. The $1,184 paid to Gephart Marketing perhaps covers signs that appeared late in the campaign promoting a block of incumbents and Michael Parker (the cost for those signs did not appear on the financial reports of any of the other candidates). And the $6,638 to Targeted Persuasion for single-color campaign signs seems quite high. Maybe it covered her direct mail and phone bank as well, as neither was disclosed in her financial reports.

In the campaign, all of the candidates came out in favor of transparency, and Bell espoused voter-owned elections. How can the Board of Elections and our own town policies ensure we achieve our goals of transparency and integrity?
– Nancy Oates

HB-2 & You & Me & Us & Them

I wish our state lawmakers would do something useful like pass legislation to Nancy Oatesquell the sex life of trees. My allergies tell me pollen season has started with a vengeance.

Instead, the N.C. General Assembly that wants to see a driver’s license before you vote, now wants to see a birth certificate before you use a public restroom.

Last week — ironically, during the Christian Holy Week — the N.C. General Assembly panicked and spent $42,000 to call an emergency session to rush through in a matter of hours a new law that apparently will prevent local municipalities from prohibiting, in certain circumstances, discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The legislation, known as House Bill 2, ostensibly came about to counter action Charlotte’s city council took that allows people to decide for themselves whether they should use the men’s or the women’s public restroom.

Which public restroom to use can be a source of anxiety to transgender people who know their anatomy doesn’t match the gender they know themselves to be. Evidently not knowing the gender recorded on the birth certificates of others in a public restroom stall strikes fear in the hearts of Republican lawmakers and nearly a dozen Democrats in North Carolina. They cobbled together a bill that tied birth certificate gender to public restroom use, and tacked on rules to prevent local governments from enacting anti-discrimination practices. For example, towns can’t preclude hiring a contractor who discriminates against gays.

There will be legal challenges, for sure. But the bill has a severability clause, which means a court will have to prove each discriminatory measure invalid before HB-2 is struck down. This could take years, and taxpayers will foot the very expensive legal fees. All this from a huddle of elected officials who campaign against government interference in citizens’ lives and who won’t spend taxpayer money on a safety net for the financially vulnerable in our community.

On Saturday, Carrboro’s board of aldermen called a special meeting and passed two resolutions: one objecting to legalizing discrimination and the other denouncing the lawmakers who voted for HB-2. Chapel Hill Town Council will hold a special meeting tonight (March 28, 6 p.m. at Town Hall) to consider the most effective way to respond to HB-2.

I don’t understand how someone with the body parts of a man can be a woman, or how a man can have the anatomy of a woman. But I learned decades ago in a calculus class that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t make it any less true, any less real. In deciding what we as town representatives can and should do about HB-2, I will take my lead from those who have been denied dignity because of who they are.

I don’t know what would be most helpful. I do know we need state lawmakers who don’t try to force on the public only the narrow view of life that the homogenous legislators understand.
– Nancy Oates

Who’ll ride the rails?

Imagine pitching a project to potential investors and not knowing whatNancy Oates your project will cost or how it will benefit stakeholders. Kind of like those anxiety dreams where you arrive at an important meeting without your pants on.

GoTriangle lived that mortification at the March 7 Town Council meeting when a council member asked how the Durham-Orange Light Rail would benefit Chapel Hill taxpayers, and the presenter didn’t have an answer. The Go-T rep said he’d only received the question that afternoon and hadn’t had time to prepare.

The DOLRT line has been in the works for years. You’d think someone early on would have run a cost-benefit analysis for Chapel Hill taxpayers, who will be shouldering a disproportionate share of the expense of the 17-mile track connecting UNC’s hospital with Duke’s.

The Go-T rep also didn’t know who would ride the train. Go-T’s studies looked at who rides the bus and extrapolated that those same riders would hop on the train. But the studies may not have looked at where riders start their trip. Many UNC workers live south and west of town, so while extended bus service would help their commute, the UNC-Duke shuttle train would not. And in other cities, light rail tends to cater to financially secure riders, whereas the more modestly paid ride the bus.

At the presentation to council, we heard about the train line’s capacity — more than 100,000 passengers — but some of the train stations don’t have parking lots. The largest parking lot planned on the Orange County side will hold only 472 cars, and the Go-T rep expressed reservation about building a parking deck at the Gateway station, off I-40. (A planned deck at the Alston Avenue station in Durham will hold 940.)

Go-T pointed out the many buses that run to UNC Hospital and campus already, implying that bus service had reached its limit. But perhaps so has UNC. Anna Wu, assistant vice chancellor of facilities operation and planning, had presented UNC’s development activity report earlier that evening, and while it showed many proposed renovations, it had no plans for any significant growth in capacity. Like many hospitals, UNC wants to open outpatient clinics away from the main hospital campus, beyond the train line’s reach.

The DOLRT has an estimated price tag of $1.6 billion, and that’s without the inevitable cost overruns and ongoing operating and maintenance expenses. Establishing a Bus Rapid Transit system and expanding bus service to towns south and west of campus would serve UNC employees better. We need to stop dreaming of a lifestyle that includes overpriced trains and focus on improving function by investing in BRT and expanded commuter buses.
– Nancy Oates

Making the most of Ephesus-Fordham

Last week, someone using the name Jon Miller wrote to Town Council, concerned that proposed changes to the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code would weaken it. I responded that the modifications would strengthen it — taxpayers have a $10 million loan to repay from increased net tax revenue, and the four projects planned or underway won’t generate sufficient, if any, net revenue. We need to encourage higher-value buildings. Former council candidate David Schwartz adds more detail to bolster my argument. Schwartz writes:

Council has been presented with projections that Village Plaza apartments — now called Alexan — will be revenue negative for Chapel Hill taxpayers. A year ago, Orange County planning staff conducted a fiscal impact analysis of the entire Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment and found it to be net revenue negative.

Read the staff memo here:

Here’s the key passage:

“Based on information provided, the County would potentially receive incremental property tax revenues over three phases of the Project of approximately $14 million. County expenditures, based on current County financial policies and guidelines, would total $23 million prior to the requested debt contribution. After paying the requested debt contribution of $400,840 over 20 years, Attachment B-1 reflects Scenario 1 where the County would net a deficit of incremental tax revenues of $10.4 million. This scenario includes the cost impact of providing County services affected by the project, as well as the 48.1% target impact of General Fund revenues provided to Education, and the costs to fund the additional students in each phase of the project at the current per pupil amount of $3,571 per pupil.

After paying the requested debt contribution of $400,840 over 20 years, Attachment B-2 reflects Scenario 2 where the County would net a deficit of incremental tax revenues of $6.9 million. This scenario only includes the 48.1% target to Education and the costs of the additional students in each phase of the project.”

The Orange County analysis assumes that residential property accounts for around 60% of the total redevelopment. Because the apartment building is more than 90% residential, we can infer that this one project will be even more revenue negative than the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment as a whole.

There is a widespread consensus among planners and economists that residential property, whether single family or multifamily, greenfield or infill, is revenue negative. No evidence exists to suggest that redevelopment in Chapel Hill is an exception.

If the appraised tax value of a dwelling unit is high enough — in Chapel Hill, probably more than $500,000 — a residence can be net positive. But almost all of the more than 5,000 new units already in the pipeline will have appraised values well below that break-even point. The County staff’s analysis of Ephesus-Fordham and the Town staff’s analysis of Obey Creek are probably the best guides for the likely fiscal impact of all this new housing.

Any residential land use, even very high-end housing, will be less fiscally beneficial than commercial or industrial land use. With residential property making up over 80% of Chapel Hill’s tax base, we need to encourage new development that does more than just break even; we need to be promoting development that generates revenue far in excess of the costs it imposes, and that means commercial/industrial. That’s why the Town Planning Commission has recommended that the residential component of any new development not exceed 33%.
– David Schwartz

Walking the talk

Every once in a while an insight emerges from those early-morning meetings Nancy Oatesthat makes them worth getting up for. Take the Community Prosperity Committee meeting last Friday morning (8 a.m., first Friday of every month, in Room C at the library; public is welcome). We’ve been working on strategies to attract more commercial development to town, instead of only luxury apartments. We had invited some local developers to last Friday’s meeting to tell us what they and their peers would need from the town to entice them to build office, retail, light industrial space, or anything that would bring in more property tax revenue than the town spends in services for it.

Were businesses not coming to town because we don’t have sufficient office space for them or the type of commercial space they want? If we build it, will they come? Developer Roger Perry of East West Partners pointed out that people come for the town, not the buildings. Invest in making the town the kind of place people want to live in, and businesses will find a way to settle here.

Economic development officer Dwight Bassett said that people want a walkable community. And people want convenient parking. No one wants to walk 8 blocks from their parking spot to get where they want to go, he said.

So where do these desirers of walkable communities want to walk? Maybe living all those years in Manhattan, a truly walkable community, has skewed my perspective. But it would seem that a walkable community is one where you have to walk to get to where you want to go. Whether it’s to school, work, the grocery store, library or pizzeria, you’ll have to walk, and some of those places, maybe even the parking deck, will be more than 8 blocks away.

As we’re planning for growth while ensuring that Chapel Hill remains a draw for residents and businesses, we need to take a pragmatic stance that weeds out jargon from function. If we want adequate greenspace to make walking in a walkable community pleasant, we can’t have a parking lot on every corner. We’ll need strategically place parking decks, which are more expensive than lots. To pay for those pricey decks, we’ll need more tax revenue, which comes from commercial buildings, not residential.

I found myself agreeing with Perry: We need to invest in the town. Greenspace costs money in that it is land that won’t generate revenue directly for the town. Structured parking is much more costly than a parking lot, but it would provide a place for out-of-town customers to park while they shop and contribute sales tax revenue in Chapel Hill. And creating an authentic walkable community may require people to actually walk.
– Nancy Oates

No right-on-red is wrong

Once in a while, an unpleasant experience turns out to be a gift. Such wasNancy Oates an evening rush hour recently when I sat in traffic on Estes Drive, heading west from Franklin Street to turn right on MLK Jr. Boulevard. Traffic had backed up almost to the library, giving me time not only to come up with a blog topic but almost enough time to write it.

Traffic along that stretch may clog even worse if Town Council approves the staff’s idea of doing away with right-turn-on-red at the MLK/Estes Drive intersection.

At last Monday’s meeting, Transportation Planning Manager David Bonk laid out three options for making a portion of Estes Drive safer for cyclists and pedestrians. In community meetings, Alternative 2 emerged the clear favorite — a raised bike path about as wide as a sidewalk, next to but separate from the street, and a double-wide sidewalk separated from the bike path by a strip of grass. Because the bike path would stay raised as it crossed driveways, it would create a de facto speed bump for cars going in and out each driveway.

The plan calls for crosswalks on all sides of the box that forms the intersection of Estes and MLK. Bonk mentioned, almost in passing, that cars on Estes would be prohibited from turning right onto MLK after stopping to make sure the way was clear.

As someone who drives through that intersection regularly and bikes through it frequently, I consider the no-right-on-red proposal a bad one from both perspectives.

Estes has short turn lanes that stack maybe eight to 10 cars. Beyond that capacity, anyone wanting to turn right or left has to line up behind cars going straight across MLK. Hence the daily rush-hour backups almost to the library. Draining some of the cars off to turn right helps. If we got rid of that pressure-release valve, all of those additional cars wanting to turn right would be added to the queue behind those going straight.

Pedestrians and cyclists, aware of their vulnerability when pitted against a car, make sure the driver sees them before venturing across the street. If the town posted a sign prohibiting right-turn-on-red, some walkers or bikers might feel a false sense of security and skip that all-important step of making eye contact with drivers. That spells disaster when a driver, forgetting about the turn ban, looks only left for other cars, then accelerates to turn.

I routinely see cars turning right on red at the Hillsborough Road/Rosemary Street intersection and the South Columbia Street/Cameron Avenue crossing, both of which have no-right-on-red signs prominently displayed.

Town staff and elected officials would do well to follow a philosophy of “First, do no harm.” As council members, we have an obligation to consider public safety and quality of life of town residents. Prohibiting right-turn-on-red at the Estes/MLK intersection fails on both counts.
– Nancy Oates

Aging in town

We know we won’t live forever, But most of us believe we’ll stay spry untilNancy Oates our last day on earth. We convince ourselves that if we take a brisk walk daily, there won’t come a time when we can’t take that walk, that if we live a healthy lifestyle, we won’t ever have to battle poor health. For the lucky ones, this may be true. But not everyone ages the way they had planned.

Age takes its toll on the body and mind, and we need to plan where we’ll live once staying in our longtime, much-loved home becomes hazardous. Chapel Hill has very few options, so I was excited when town planning staff came up with the idea of a special zoning code called Independent Senior Living. But I did a complete turnaround when I saw it allowed each unit to have a full kitchen.

Zoning perks can be a tool to encourage developers to build the type of places we want when they could make more money building something else. The proposed senior living zoning would allow a higher floor-area ratio (building square feet to land square feet) for a facility that has a common dining area, gathering spaces and recreation rooms; some onsite services, such as a hair salon; and some services that come in, such as nurses offering blood pressure checks and vaccinations.

If the zoning allows full kitchens in each apartment, the facility will no longer serve people who need a catered lifestyle. Those folks will be shoved aside by people who have other living options but prefer to live in a place where they won’t have to go out for a haircut. This demographic likely will still drive, so the kitchenated building will need more parking spaces and will add more traffic to the residential neighborhoods in which they want to build. All of a sudden, we’ve provided motivation to build the kind of place that makes more money for the developer, and “more money” is sufficient enticement that developers don’t need additional perks from the town.

Think how hard it is to tell a parent — or be the person told — “No more car keys.” It will be all the harder to say or hear, “No more stove.” People who have to give up those privileges feel they’ve been permanently kicked off varsity with no hope of ever earning a spot on the A team again. It is a huge psychological blow. The pain can be eased somewhat by moving to a place where nobody has stoves, and you find some interesting people there whose company you enjoy. Why subject senior citizens to the repeated hurt of having someone at their dining table say, “I won’t be joining you for dinner tomorrow. I’m going to cook my own meal, which I can do and you can’t.” Which is what the stoveless will hear, regardless of what words were said.

For Independent Senior Living zoning to do what we want it to do, the option of full kitchens has to be deleted from the definition. Otherwise, we’re not making room for people to stay in town as they age.
– Nancy Oates

… and bathrooms for all

Now I feel bad. At a recent Town Council meeting I clarified to my Nancy Oatescolleagues my view that the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance — the town law that requires subdivision builders to make 15% of the homes affordable based on Area Median Income — does not mean developers must provide luxury housing to people who can’t afford it. I advocated for “value engineering” affordable homes to be able to adhere to the law that some people believe to be onerous. Perhaps an 1,100-square-foot home for a family of four did not have to have three bathrooms, I posited.

To which another council member took umbrage. That CM wondered how parents could raise two children, especially when they become teenagers, in a home with fewer than three bathrooms. At which point, I felt a stab of shame.

You see, I grew up as one of four teenagers, and two parents, in a home with one-and-a-half bathrooms. Oddly, my siblings and I all grew up to be productive members of society, having done well by the markers used to judge success.

Think of what we could have become had we had twice the number of bathrooms.

Then again, maybe family stability doesn’t depend on how many bathrooms are in a house. Maybe parents who have an extra two or three hours a day to pay attention to their kids, rather than enduring long commutes to work and home to their many bathrooms, enjoy life more. Maybe being raised by parents who aren’t stressed and angry pays off in a child’s sense of self and attitude toward the rest of the world. Maybe having to share limited bathroom resources helps children acquire early on the traits of flexibility, forbearance, time management and negotiating skills, respect for others’ needs, and an understanding of boundaries.

Putting aside the snark, my point is that the luxury finishes and amenities a child grows up with mean less than the hard-to-measure factors of the stability engendered by living in a home the family owns, of coming home to a safe neighborhood, of having parents who are home from work in time for dinner and with enough energy to take an interest in their children’s lives.

Families should have the choice of trading a plethora of bathrooms and a large yard for a smaller space but more time to live in it. If builders threaten to not build a subdivision because they say they can’t afford to sell luxury homes at a steep discount to comply with town law, then maybe we should let them know they can build good-enough homes — built to code, with fewer amenities, in a safe neighborhood — priced for people who work modestly paid jobs.

More affordable homes, fewer bathrooms. Better lives for families.
– Nancy Oates

Money, money, money

How to spend money wreaks havoc on many a marriage. As Town Council, with Nancy Oatesits four new members, begins the budgeting process this year, I wonder how our new council relationships will fare.

The town’s financial director, Ken Pennoyer, will give a presentation at Monday night’s meeting that involves shifting some unexpected leftover money to where it’s needed most. Some projects cost less to complete, enough so to more than make up for the projects that went over-budget.

Throughout the spring, council will work on a budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which starts July 1, 2016. We’ll hear from nonprofits that want the town to support their good work, and from private citizens about how to prioritize spending. Given that 84% of the property tax revenue comes from residential property owners, they have a strong voice.

As council members, we’ll aim to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money and make spending decisions that will serve the interests of our diverse residents. But setting aside our personal priorities in favor of the values of town residents can be very difficult, and council members approach the task with different levels of commitment to putting town values first.

At the final session of the UNC School of Government’s training for public officials last month, we played a simulation game in which we divided up into faux councils to make budget decisions for our imaginary town. The facilitator made sure we were not sitting with anyone whom we serve with on a board in real life, and given how tempers flared as the game progressed, I could see her point.

First we chose values for our town. Immediately, our individual viewpoints asserted themselves. I found myself arguing for affordable housing and environmental issues to a group of men from small towns where all the housing is cheap and they’re surrounded by greenspace. They emphasized jobs and well-maintained streets, because they had no public transportation system.

Our game board showed the expenses traditionally covered, and we were given a revenue figure too small to pay for everything. We began to look at what to cut. At first, we were able to come up with some low-hanging fruit, picking up recycling monthly instead of weekly, for instance. But as the cuts deepened, we abandoned our town values and argued for what mattered to us individually. When I suggested closing the senior center because “Family Friendly” was not one of our town’s values, one of my faux colleagues rose from his seat, leaned across the table and growled, “You can’t close the senior center!” (Did I mention that almost all of the others at my table were retirees?)

The exercise gave me a sense of the passion we likely will bring to setting a budget for Chapel Hill. I hope we will all stay seated, but I expect we may occasionally raise our voices. And as in marriage, a robust discussion that clearly lays out differing views can end in decisions everyone can live with.
– Nancy Oates