… 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

Council retreat

I suppose I’d be opening up fresh wounds if I proposed that before people Nancy Oatesweigh in on the icy sidewalk problem they first go see The Martian.

The movie captures one of my core philosophies of life: the notion of chipping away. In the face of futility, continue to live your life. Stay true to your values, and solve the problems you can — one, then another, then another — not in hopes of triumphing over an insurmountable challenge, but because as human beings, solving problems one at a time is what we do.

At the council retreat over this past weekend, I got to know the other council members and key staff a little better. I was heartened to learn that a number of them had at some point lived in places with long, snowy winters. Negotiating tough winters requires that people collect and evaluate data (Are the highways closed? Have the plows come through? How fast is the snow accumulating?), weigh the risks and benefits (Is going to the store for milk worth the risk of falling and breaking a hip?), and make sound decisions that could affect the lives of other people (If my car skids off the road, who might be hit?).

Snow builds character, or so my parents led us kids to believe. Those relentless snowstorms, from October through April, the repeated shoveling, the tense driving on slippery roads foster perseverance, intrepidness and resilience. Whether winter-weathered council members reveal those characteristics sooner or later, I am gratified to know the stuff of which they are made.

I also was surprised to observe that almost all of the council members and staff at the retreat are introverts. Usually, being an introvert is coupled with traits of self-reflection and curiosity about others and the tendency to observe before acting. All qualities I want to see in people making decisions that affect my quality of life.

And I noted that when it came to our individual visions for the town, we had much in common. Our differences came in the process we believed we should implement to get there. For instance, if we agree that a 4-story building is appropriate on some corner, are we willing to impose by-right zoning and trust the outcome to the developer, or do we want a special-use permit so we know what we’re getting? If we can’t agree on the process, we may lose the building we think would benefit the town.

As the amount of buildable land quickly diminishes, we, as a council, will have some important decisions coming up. I believe we’ll get where we want to go, if we just chip away.
– Nancy Oates

On ice

Snowplow-2The calls started coming in Sunday before the sun had reached high noon. Constituents who live on what’s known as “tertiary streets” phoned me because they knew I’d understand their cabin fever. All of us were iced in, and our good humor had begun to fray.

Tertiary streets are those out-of-the-way neighborhoods that are the last to get salted, sanded or plowed. My own tertiary neighborhood is a very hilly one, and on snow days, kids and parents turn the streets into a series of sledding runs. Even if I were able to get my car out of the driveway, I would not venture to drive on our neighborhood’s streets for fear of wiping out the next generation.

Except during ice storms, living in a tertiary neighborhood has many advantages. It’s quiet and safe. The only cars that come by belong to people who live here or are lost or are delivering newspapers. Kids regularly take over the streets for tag football, basketball shoot-arounds and skateboard stunt courses.

But when those winter storms roll through, I’d gladly trade my private Garden of Eden for an apartment with a super on a bus route. That rutted power easement that separates us from the flat parking lot of the apartment complex next door might as well be the Great Wall of China. Watching people leave their apartments and drive out onto the plowed MLK Jr. Boulevard sends pangs of jealousy through those of us who have had too much down time. I’ve been known to shovel a path down the middle of my cul-de-sac street while waiting for the plow to work through to the bottom of its priority list. But the ice this time was too thick.

I wondered, as I watched my husband slide down the driveway into what I was sure would end in a broken hip, whether I’d be able to load him onto the sled and haul him out to the main road to wait for an ambulance. I hoped that my 90-something-year-old neighbor would not have a medical emergency. And I worried whether the people who drive our snowplows but can’t afford to live in town would be able to travel safely along the rural roads they’d have to traverse to get to work.

Which is yet another example of why we need to create more workforce housing in town. Gov. McCrory can caution all he wants that people need to work from home during bad weather, but not everyone can. When the streets are unsafe for motorists not used to driving on ice, we rely on buses. If the transit drivers have to commute several miles over unplowed roads, chances are we all stay home.

Town Council meets tonight. I hope the drivers of the NS route are able to get to work.
– Nancy Oates

What we do best

Decades ago, a running coach told me, “The only way to run faster is to Nancy Oatesrun faster.” Pre-empting Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan by nearly a generation, the coach’s advice has proved useful in all sorts of situations in my life. Now it appears I can apply it to Town Council work.

The town has hired, and we the taxpayers are paying for, a consultant to help us think differently about economic development. Rod Stevens, owner of Spinnaker Strategies out of Bainbridge Island, Wash., has met with the town’s Community Prosperity Committee to show us examples of how other towns and communities within cities have identified what they do best and have shopped that around to attract companies that are a good fit with the area. Stevens has prodded us at the committee meetings to define what is unique about Chapel Hill. What do we do better than anyplace else?

We’re looking at the whole picture — the type of buildings and gathering spaces and where to put them; the talent available for hire; even community values, such as the priority we place on the quality of our schools and library and recreation spaces.

At some point we’ll need to move our ideas into the implementation phase, get the rest of the community involved and figure out how to make whatever changes we need to make. That’s where my running coach’s advice comes in.

If we are serious about the ideas we’ve been talking about, or the ideas we campaigned on, we need to do what it takes to get where we want to go. That can take many forms. The town’s economic development officer will need to recruit the kinds of businesses that would be a good fit for the community.

For instance, with the university at the center of town, we have intellectual capital and a supply of young, energetic, innovative thinkers. With a town master plan that emphasizes preserving green spaces, parks and trails, a prepaid bus system and becoming a walkable community, we appeal to companies whose employees want to raise their families in a healthy environment. Politically, we lean left, and that attracts entrepreneurial businesses whose employees aren’t constrained to established norms and traditions.

For those of us on council, we need to be clear about the type of development we want. We may have to nudge developers outside of their cookie-cutter models so we have an environment that works for the employees of the new businesses we want to draw here. Not the least of these concerns for young professionals is affordable housing.

The downside of my coach’s advice is that there are no shortcuts. If I wanted to run faster, I had to put in the time and grueling effort to push myself beyond what I thought I could do. I hung up my sneakers long ago. Looks like now I’ll still be pushing myself, even while sitting on the dais.
– Nancy Oates

Maleah

Sometimes tragedies occur that shock everyone and leave us thinking, How Nancy Oatescould this happen? Such a moment came a few weeks ago in Chapel Hill, when 14-month-old Maleah Williams was shot in her mother’s arms in front of her home on Christmas Day.

It’s human nature to want to find a cause when catastrophes befall, because we think if we knew what caused them, we might find a way to prevent another horrific event from happening in the future. But life doesn’t work that way. Certainly Maleah’s mother couldn’t have done anything differently. What could be safer for a child than cuddling in her mother’s arms?

Neither could the police department have increased its presence enough to prevent this shooting. No one wants to live in a police state with officers patrolling the streets, guns at the ready every time a car drives by. Even stricter gun control, something I strongly support, likely would have been no deterrent in this crime.
Sometimes it feels we have precious little control over what fate hands us. Yet we can’t live our lives in fear, braced for the next bad thing.

As a mother, I can’t imagine the pain Maleah’s family is in right now. I can’t fathom the grief of the families of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha; and Feng Liu; and Eve Carson.

Much as we’d like to go back in time and change the fate of all of these victims of senseless violence, all we can do is offer our presence so their families won’t be alone in the darkness of grief, our desire to stand firm so the survivors have people to lean on when life feels too hard to go on.

The police took suspects into custody quickly, and I have confidence the court system will do its job. We, as a community, must turn our attention to what we must do to support the families of the victims and all families, so that little boys don’t grow up to become men with such anger and hatred in their hearts that they are capable of murder.
– Nancy Oates

New beginnings

New year, new mayor, new council. New ideas, new dynamics, new proposals. Nancy Oates

With all of these new beginnings, Town Council will evaluate new development applications. Chapel Hill has only a handful of large parcels of land that would be suitable for the high-revenue commercial space we need to shift the property tax burden homeowners bear. More than 80% of the property tax revenue that feeds the town’s coffers comes from homeowners. And as most residential property costs more in services than the revenue it brings in, we dig ourselves in deeper with every new apartment building approved.

I am hopeful that council and town staff can work together on this problem, that the town’s economic development officer can recruit some businesses other than retail, bars and restaurants. We need a data center or other light industry. We need wet-lab space. We need inexpensive, flexible office space for new businesses launched at our incubators to land. And we need space suitable for a corporation’s headquarters.

Up to this point, the development that has come before council originated with whatever was most profitable for the developer. In the past couple of years, the former council approved about 5,800 new residential units. Once built and occupied, those new units will increase our population by about 20%.

It’s time to shift that mindset and recruit projects that better serve the community. Town planners can explain to potential applicants what the town needs. The town manager, economic development officer and planning staff can let developers know that we’re saturated with luxury rentals and can encourage the commercial space council likely would approve quickly.

The American Legion is looking for a buyer for its 36 acres along Legion Road. In November, the former Town Council gave up Chapel Hill’s right of first refusal to buy the land. That puts the responsibility on the new Town Council to work with any potential buyer to shape the proposed development to conform with something that will benefit the community. Any transaction of that magnitude must be a win-win for both parties.

I have confidence the new council will embrace that concept.
– Nancy Oates

Excluding Inclusionary Zoning?

Since when did affordable housing mean homes for people who earn 100% of Nancy Oatesthe Area Median Income?

Chapel Hill passed the Inclusioinary Zoning Ordinance in 2010 that 15% of all new for-sale housing units built must be affordable to people earning no more than 80% or 65% of the AMI (the affordable units split evenly between 80% and 65%). Only one development has started construction since the law took effect — Ramsley, off Eubanks Road — and the former council granted an exemption, allowing the affordable units to be 100% of AMI without checking with the Community Home Trust first.

A second project has been approved but not yet built: The Courtyards at Homestead. That developer agreed to nearly $1 million payment-in-lieu for a 64-home subdivision. Compare that to Carolina Square, a $123 million project that will pay only $250,000 as payment-in-lieu.

Now comes the Merin Road Community, 61 single-family detached houses with 9 affordable townhomes. The former council did not object to Capkov’s proposal that it, too, be exempt from the 80/65 rule and price the affordable homes at 100% AMI instead. But, again, council didn’t check with CHT, which as a 501C(3) has a limit to the number of homes it can sell above the 80% level.

Here’s how Inclusionary Zoning works: CHT negotiates with the developer how much it will pay to buy the unit. Once CHT finds a buyer, a double-closing takes place. CHT buys the unit at the negotiated price, then sells it to the homeowner at the 80% or 65% level. CHT has to have the cash to make up the difference between its purchase price and sales price. That money comes from grants or private donations.

The rules governing the nonprofit allow up to 35% of the homes to be purchased above the 80% level. So only 3 of the 9 townhomes at Merin Road could be bought at the 100% level.

All of us make sacrifices for the privilege of living or working in Chapel Hill, in the form of high property taxes or, for those who can’t afford to live here, long commutes to serve our town. Developers, too, make a good living through their projects in Chapel Hill, where people are willing to pay more for homes, to the developers’ benefit. If Inclusionary Zoning truly doesn’t work, we need to rework the ordinance. But until then, a sacrifice developers can make would be to obey the law.
– Nancy Oates

Festive Council

I took a different tack this year in creating a Christmas lights tour. Nancy OatesRather than driving through town randomly searching for yards that glow, I visited the neighborhoods of Town Council members to gauge holiday spirit.

First, where not to go: Morgan Creek. Though Sally Greene’s house had a dash of red, the streets are dark and narrow, and we stumbled upon only one house, on Coker Road, with pretty lights.

Likewise Northside, where Michael Parker and Donna Bell live. Greenbridge had lights in only one window, which was too high up to inspire awe. Bell had no lights, though some of her neighbors did. Much of the rest of the neighborhood was undecorated.

Jessica Anderson doesn’t do lights, either, but a few houses at the entrance to her neighborhood of Ironwoods took on the responsibility of electric cheer, including one that has colored balls floating among the trees. And the route from Northside to Ironwoods took us past Carr Mill Mall, where a giant oak had been wrapped in white lights, all the way out to the tips of its highest branches.

Ed Harrison chose classic décor: a string of colored bulbs swagged around a picture window with a view of a lighted Christmas tree inside. Few of his neighbors on Newton Drive decorated, but Ephesus Church Road, which we traveled to get there, revealed some treats, including a giant, inflated, glittery snowman that glowed from within and a sufficiency of houses decked out for drive-by viewing.

My neighborhood of Old Forest Creek has a few jewels, starting with the tiered birthday cake-style extravaganza where Old Forest Creek Drive splits into a circle. Continue around the loop to discover a house aglitter with multicolor lights and a one-of-a-kind waterfall of lights near the driveway.

About a mile down Piney Mountain Road, Maria Palmer took a low-key approach, blanketing her shrubbery on Forbush Mountain Road with multicolored lights. A neighboring house lit its roofline, but few other houses were decorated.

But the mood picked up on the way to George Cianciolo’s neighborhood of Chandler’s Green. Make sure to drive along Cedar Hills Drive, where several houses were festively aglow. Cianciolo’s neighborhood wins the We Love the Holidays Brought to You by Duke Power prize.

Enter Sweeten Creek Drive from Sunrise Road to see my favorite, a tree wrapped tightly with red lights. No branch is left out. The owner says it takes two days to put it up each year. Continue all the way down Sweeten Creek to Amesbury, where Cianciolo’s next-door neighbor has a classic New England Christmas house, all white lights, candles and evergreen wreaths with red bows. Cianciolo wisely aimed not to compete and instead put sedate candles in each window.

But don’t stop at Amesbury. Travel all the way down Sweeten Creek until it turns into Perry Creek and ends at Sage Road. Among all the festively decorated homes, you’ll find a veritable Christmas house, spotlit to show an oversized snow globe, a cocoa hot tub and the word “JOY” spelled out across the porch rail.

And that’s what I hope carries you through this holiday season.
– Nancy Oates

We have to talk

Jim Ward set the bar high during the Dec. 2 organizational meeting when it Nancy Oatescame to thanking his family for their support during the 16 years he served on Town Council. It was pointed out to me, archly, that I did not single out any family members in my generic thanks. So, here’s what I would have said, if I had it to do over again:

Thank you to my husband, my son and my daughter-in-law, who came to witness my swearing in, even though they had other places to be and I had promised them it would take only 15 minutes.

Thank you to my daughter, who was sound asleep in France during the ceremony, but earlier had picked out a suit for me and persuaded me to wear heels.

Thank you to my siblings, who supported my run for office, even though we don’t all see eye-to-eye politically, and who taught me that you can disagree with someone stridently but still respect them and enjoy their company. Despite our disparate viewpoints, we never stop talking to one another, and we never stop listening. That practice might come in handy during the upcoming four years.

Your council needs to hear from you. We make decisions that affect you. We won’t know what’s important to you unless you tell us, by sending an email or calling us (our contact information is on our individual bio pages on townofchapelhill.org) or speaking from the podium at a council meeting.

If something is not working right in the community, let town staff know. Go to the town’s website, hover your cursor over “I want to …” then click on Town Departments under the Contact subheading.

I was working on campus last week when a colleague came into the office one morning still steaming about the massive traffic jam he’d sat in on the way home from work the night before. The contractor building the hotel at Southern Village had blocked off one of the two southbound lanes along U.S. 15-501 into the evening rush-hour. Traffic was at a near standstill from South Columbia Street to beyond Southern Village.

An email to the town manager revealed that the contractor’s permit to close one lane was valid only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. No one knew that the contractor had violated his permit. Maybe the hundreds of people trying to leave campus or the hospital or exit the bypass thought this was how the town did business. It took one person speaking up to fix the problem.

I’m guessing that all of us on council want what’s best for Chapel Hill. We may have different views of what the ideal town looks like, who the community is and how to bring out the full potential of everyone. Let’s start talking.
– Nancy Oates