Amy Ryan | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

Amy Ryan 

Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

Name as it appears on the ballot: Amy Ryan

Full legal name, if different: Amy Morris Ryan

Date of birth: 03/31/1960

Occupation & employer: Editor, self-employed

Campaign website: amyryan.org

Email: amy4chapelhill@gmail.com


1. Why are you running for office and what are your top priorities, if elected? Please include information on past public service, posts held, volunteer work completed and other examples of your leadership.

Chapel Hill has inherited a wonderful legacy, thanks to a strong tradition of good planning and environmental stewardship. I'm running for Council to help us decide how to bring that legacy forward, while at the same time planning to change in ways that will keep this a great place to live in 2020 and beyond.

The town has completed the visioning for the 2020 Comprehensive Plan and is now poised to make specific decisions about what kind of growth we want and whether to adopt new processes for zoning and approving development. If elected to Council, I promise to

• Plan for growth comprehensively and make sure we don't prioritize economic expansion over quality of life, respect for existing businesses and neighborhoods, and environmental stewardship.

• Support appropriate new commercial, residential, and mixed-use development at a moderate scale and where it makes sense in downtown, along transit corridors, and in existing commercial nodes like the Ephesus-Fordham area.

• Continue my efforts to involve citizens proactively in town planning, so that they have a meaningful say in how our town grows.

• Weigh carefully the proposed changes to our development review process to ensure that any new system allows for meaningful public input and offers a mechanism for evaluating individual project impacts.

My interest in land planning issues began with my master's degree in landscape architecture and has been honed over a decade spent in service on various Chapel Hill boards and commissions, including the Community Design Commission, the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force, the Morgan Creek Trail Commission, and the 2020 Comprehensive Plan Good Places group. Currently, I'm a member of the Planning Board and co-chair of the Central West Future Focus Area process.

2. If you are not currently serving on the Town Council, what will you bring to the body that it now lacks? If you are an incumbent, what perspective have you brought that the town still needs?

Our current Council has a diverse makeup including lawyers, businesspeople, an ecologist and a social worker, among other occupations but there is no one with a background in design and planning.

Given that a large proportion of the Council's decision-making involves land planning and design issues, I think it crucial to have this expertise represented on Council. My education (a master's in landscape architecture and three years of advanced graduate work in design, history, and planning), ten years of experience reviewing development applications on various Chapel Hill advisory boards, and recent successful efforts to insure citizen involvement in planning initiatives make me the right person to fill this expertise gap in Council.

3. In the last four years, what do you feel are the three best accomplishments of Chapel Hill Town Government, and why? Conversely, what are three things you would have done differently?

The Three Best:

1. The Glen Lennox NCD Process

Through the efforts of neighbors, the developer, and town staff, community stakeholders were able to come to the table after a contentious start and hammer out a consensus decision on major redevelopment for the area. The plan accomplished several difficult objectives including preserving some of the moderately priced housing and ensuring that long-term residents could afford to stay in their apartments while providing for substantial commercial and residential growth. This process set a standard for other community processes in town to live up to.

2. 2020 Comprehensive Plan Community Outreach

This year-long effort marked a new commitment by the town to include the public in planning efforts. It brought many people into the public discussion who had never participated before and increased awareness of the important issues that face the town. I hope that as the town drills down into the specifics of resolving these issues, we continue these strong outreach efforts and make it part of our planning tradition.

3. Rogers Road Mitigation

This joint effort by Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County to provide sewer services to the area and live up to promises made to neighbors in the 1970s to mitigate the effects of the town's landfill is a good example of the benefits of cooperation between local governments, something we need to see more of. It also is the right thing to do, helping to mitigate the environmental impacts of the old landfill and taking a stand for principles of environmental justice.

Three I'd Do Differently:

1. Approval of Bicycle Apartments

No question that this site was ripe for redevelopment and increased density, but at a time when the town is desperately trying to find a way to provide more moderately priced housing, Council voted to replace 74 units of affordable rentals with 600+ high-rent purpose-built student dorm rooms in a complex rebranded after approval as "The Lux."

Council should have held out for a plan that offered moderately priced housing to meet the needs of a broader group who want to live near their jobs and classes at the University and downtown.

2. Scrapping of the 1992 Southern Small Area Plan

Back in the early 1990s, when Southern Village was being proposed, the town convened a small area process to plan development. We orchestrated a density swap, concentrating building on the Southern Village site and establishing very low density on the east side of 15-501. This was a compact created between town and citizens, and it became part of the town's comprehensive plan.

Twenty years later, when a developer dangled the prospect of increased tax revenue from big new development on the low-density site, town leaders took it on themselves to scrap the 1992 Southern Small Area Plan without a public hearing. Because this plan enshrined promises made to the community by the town, if revisions were desired they should have been made as part of a public process and not simply tossed aside by administrative fiat.

3. Attempted Reduction of Stream Buffer Protections

In 2012, town staff brought forward a resolution to amend Chapel Hill's stream buffer (Resource Conservation District) regulations. Under the guise of "reducing . . . complexity and confusion," they recommended decreasing the town's current 150-foot buffers to the proposed 50-foot Jordan buffer widths. The Jordan rules speak only to nutrient-related water quality standards, while the town's RCD is designed to maintain the functioning of other important ecological services, including maintaining wildlife and vegetation habitat, minimizing flooding dangers, and protecting streams from erosion and sedimentation.

Town boards quickly raised concerns about this proposal, and I and many others are working to make sure our current RCD protections remain on the books and that the impending update to our land use management ordinance retains the current 150-foot protection zone.

4. Indy Week's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

During my service on the Planning Board and Community Design Commission, I've been a supporter of our neighborhood conservation districts, which put protections in place to buffer vulnerable areas against market forces. This process has slowed the gentrification in Northside and led to a plan to preserve some existing moderately priced housing in Glen Lennox and guarantee long-time residents that their rents will remain stable as redevelopment occurs.

Affordability is an important equity issue and an enormous challenge for Chapel Hill. As I'll discuss in more detail in the last question, it's important to remember that housing cost is only one part of the affordability equation, and I will support other measures like encouraging more housing on transit corridors and responsible fiscal management to keep tax rates in check to help make living in town affordable for a broader range of community members.

5. How do you define yourself politically (i.e. conservative, moderate, liberal, third party, hybrid, etc.) and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I've always been a registered Democrat, liberal on social issues, a moderate fiscally. As a progressive female candidate, I've received training and support from Lillian's List in Raleigh.

My ideals can be seen in my work over the past year to organize citizen participation in the planning process, believing that the public involvement of a wide variety of stakeholders is crucial to making just decisions for our future. My efforts have contributed to the creation of community planning processes in both the Central West and Obey Creek areas.

Like many places across the country, Chapel Hill has seen revenue decline during the past recession, and the town is mounting a push to dramatically increase commercial development to help boost our bottom line. My fiscal moderation and familiarity with fiscal impact studies from other towns in the United States makes me cautious about accepting big development unquestioningly as the solution to our financial situation. We need feel confident that proposed development will actually be revenue positive for the town, once expenses like providing town services are factored in, before we rush to approve it.

6. Chapel Hill has a reputation as a town that is anti-business. Is that fair or not? What would you do to change that reputation, if at all?

Because Chapel Hill evolved as a university town, we've developed as a place with an institution at its heart, rather than a business community. I don't think it's fair to call us anti-business, but we have embraced a vision of ourselves as a small college town with a relaxed pace of life and a low-key commercial presence.

We all recognize the need to boost our commercial tax base, and in the last couple of years, town government has made a policy decision to do just that, with initiatives ranging from its "Open for Business" promotion to the economic development office's push for a million new square feet of retail space and a million square feet of office by 2020.

I think there's a middle ground between remaining the Chapel Hill of the last century and becoming an overbuilt "anywhere" town. On the retail front, we should be promoting moderate, quality growth that enhances the town as a whole and that doesn't cannibalize our important downtown business district.

I also believe that Chapel Hill should energetically pursue the goal of a stronger employer base. Currently our largest private employer is the retailer Southern Season, and we could provide more well-paying jobs (and more tax revenue) by persuading more large companies to locate in town. I also applaud the town's efforts to nurture local start-ups; in fact, I was part of the group that recommended creating a Rosemary Street entrepreneurial hub as part of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan Big Idea action themes.

Improving our development approval process is an important part of getting the growth that we want. The town is exploring ways to address this issue now. I encourage these efforts, but also want us to make sure that they involve adequate public input during the planning phase and then an opportunity for public review and input before final development applications are approved.

7. What is your view on the town's recent moves to support high-density, mixed-use developments in downtown Chapel Hill? What can be done to revitalize and support downtown?

When Chapel Hill put our urban services boundary and rural buffer in place, we made the ecologically sound decision not to sprawl, but to grow by increasing density within the town.

It makes good sense to put density in downtown. New residences make the street livelier throughout the day and offer a housing option for those who prefer to live in a vibrant downtown area. Companies locating here can offer their employees the live/work walkable environment they increasingly say they want. More people living and working downtown helps support existing businesses and puts new population in the area where we have the best transit service.

It's important that we do this infill sensitively, so that it enhances Franklin Street and the adjacent campus. The new building at 140 West Franklin is a good example of an infill project that's modern in design but that fits well into the streetscape.

Parking is always an issue downtown, and both 140 West and future development at 123 West Franklin provide substantial new public parking spaces, which will help ease the situation. Changes to transit service that include more night and weekend hours could help improve access to downtown merchants, while diversification of the types of businesses, including a small grocery store, would enable those who live downtown to meet many of their daily needs nearby. I would also encourage exploration of a link between downtown and the University Mall area, our other large commercial center, which could benefit both areas.

8. What are your thoughts on the town's panhandling ordinance and its enforcement by Chapel Hill police?

I generally think the town's approach ordinance, outreach, and enforcement is the right one, but aggressive panhandling remains a problem.

I'd like to see the town do more to educate the public about what the laws around panhandling are, so that community members are aware of what is and is not legal and know when to report inappropriate solicitations. People identified as breaking the law should be offered appropriate support services and informed about the law's prohibitions, but repeat aggressive or threatening panhandlers should be subject to the law's enforcement.

I also support the "Real Change from Spare Change" program to help fund needed services, as well as the IFC's program to provide transitional housing that can help people build better lives for themselves.

9. What do you think of the town's comprehensive plan, Chapel Hill 2020? What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? As a council member, how would you go about implementing the plan?

I'm intimately familiar with the 2020 comprehensive plan process, having served as both a 2020 stakeholder and on the Planning Board subcommittee that edited the document text and suggested substantive revisions. I was also part of the group that crafted the plan's Five Big Ideas, suggestions for major new town initiatives to embody the plan's themes.

One of the great strengths of Chapel Hill 2020 is its strong outreach effort, which got lots of people talking about the future and involved town affairs. This involvement has continued into the plan implementation process that's going on today, both in terms of the town's continued outreach to community members and people's eagerness to continue to engage on the issues.

Because it is primarily a visioning document, the 2020 Plan is short on specifics. The text provides a good guidance to the principles the town holds important and priorities we want to emphasize (finding ways to house a more economically diverse population, for example), but it didn't reach the point where it defined specific growth and development plans for the town. Many of the recommendations are so general (or at times contradictory) that almost any kind of development can be justified within the text.

There are also some important omissions. While it does call for future planning efforts in places in town that are likely to see change, it does not provide a method for measuring cumulative impacts, for planning comprehensively, for deciding on what features we're trying to enhance or protect or improve, for deciding our goals for housing and commercial space and other changes and distributing them to the areas that can accommodate them. The document also does not deal with the implications of the creation of a significant new campus at Carolina North (in fact, this major agent of change is mentioned only once in the document).

The second, implementation phase of the 2020 process has begun, and as a Council member I'll work to make sure that some of these important omissions are corrected. Currently we're seeing problems as a result of the aggressive implementation schedule, and I think we should space out the different initiatives so that both staff and citizens can devote adequate time and attention to them. I would also push to initiate a more detailed town-wide planning effort and make sure that any new zoning and development approval process has citizens involved in planning up front and a meaningful public review process before approval.

10. Chapel Hill continues to struggle to offer affordable housing. As a council member, what would you do to push affordable housing in the town?

The town has good efforts under way to help figure out ways to provide affordable housing, most recently the Mayor's Committee on Affordable Rental Housing. But it's important to remember that housing is only one part of a family's budget. Other issues also determine whether a place is affordable to live, and Chapel Hill should do more in these areas to help us become home to a more economically diverse population.

A significant part of any family's budget is transportation costs, which last year reached 17 percent of annual expenses for the average American household. Chapel Hill already offers extensive fare-free bus service; placing more moderately priced housing near our transit routes, and expanding service to night, weekend, and holiday hours, would help families save money on transportation and see a real reduction in their household expenses.

Our high taxes contribute to our lack of affordability. Chapel Hill needs to remember that each time we raise taxes, we are pricing yet more families out of town. We have recently funded a major library expansion, aquatic center, and community park all worthy projects, but all projects that raise town expenditures and operating costs and take a bigger bite out of taxpayers' budgets. While it may be the right thing to do to fund more affordable housing units through a tax increase, this will also put a hit on the town's affordability.

Wages are another part of the affordability equation. Approximately sixty percent of the people who live in the town's public housing units are University or UNC Healthcare employees. We need to press the University to do more to make sure that their workers are receiving a living wage. As the town contemplates large amounts of new commercial growth, we should also think about the implication of adding lots of new low-wage retail jobs to our area and perhaps decide we should pursue other types of businesses that can provide the much better incomes for our residents that will help them afford to live in Chapel Hill.

  • Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

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