It's taken awhile to dawn on some Hillsborough residents, but the small town is the object of considerable interest. Relatively unspoiled, with large tracts of open land still available and an attractive downtown, Hillsborough has seen substantial development applications increase exponentially the past few years. Wal-Mart built a new store near I-85, and Home Depot will soon open nearby. Proposals for several large housing projects are currently on the table. Prices for historic downtown properties are approaching Chapel Hill levels.
It's not hard to see what can happen if the town chooses to let development happen piecemeal as proposals come in--just look at Cary, or Chatham County. The creation of satellite downtowns built around subdivisions and strip malls would destroy Hillsborough's unique character and make it indistinguishable from its neighbors.
The need for a comprehensive plan has never been more acute, and most candidates for commissioner and mayor agree that crafting a plan is the town's No. 1 priority.
Making that happen, however, is another matter. The need for affordable housing, relief from traffic congestion, parks and open space, historic preservation, jobs and other basics often conflict, and the town has been marked by factional infighting that has stalled creation of the plan. Our endorsements focus on those candidates who we feel offer the best opportunity to build consensus on the plan and other critical decisions the town will face in coming months.
Hillsborough's mayor does not have a vote and is primarily a figurehead, but the position offers an opportunity to guide the town's agenda and push select projects. Real estate agency owner Joe Phelps, seeking his third term as mayor, is running against Tom Stevens, a business management consultant. Phelps has shown leadership on such initiatives as a junk car and overgrown lot ordinance and is responsive to citizen input, but has come up short when it comes to the more pressing issue of the comprehensive plan, about which he seems ambivalent--he told The N&O that his top priority for the coming term would be to complete Fairview Park and "help the town save money." Stevens, a political novice, brings considerable professional experience as a team builder that offsets his lack of political know-how. In sharp contrast to Phelps, Stevens lists the comprehensive plan as his chief interest, and understands that the plan must integrate with town and county zoning and land-use planning ordinances. Stevens also has solid ideas about small business growth and community-based economic development that are in keeping with the town's strengths and character.
Board of Town Commissioners
Three candidates are vying for two open seats on the town board. We endorse the two incumbents, Mike Gering and Frances Dancy. Gering has shown the kind of leadership during his term on the board that Hillsborough needs. He often leads discussions at board meetings and is fully prepared on the issues--his responses to the Independent questionnaire were uniformly detailed and clear. In addressing development proposals, Gering has been sensitive to mthe town's growth interests but has shown a willingness to reject inadequate projects or ask for plan revisions that make them more compatible with their surroundings. Environmentally conscious, Gering helped forestall a controversial asphalt plant and has been active in historic preservation issues, both as a member of the town's Historic District Commission and a board member. Dancy has advocated consistently sensible positions on development projects; her initiative and research, for example, helped develop an innovative stormwater management plan for the new Oakdale development. She advocates a cooperative relationship with the county that has sometimes been missing on important matters. Though not as engaged as Gering at board meetings, Dancy can be counted on to cast a thoughtful and informed vote.
The third candidate, Paul Newton, has been a lightning rod in town politics. Newton has been as politically active as anyone in the community, an admirable trait, and is currently chairman of the town planning board. Though he has toned down his rhetoric this campaign and taken down the inflammatory pages from his Web site, Newton has authored numerous columns and letters to the editor in the local papers that have taken current board members, the Orange County GOP and others to task for perceived wrongdoing. A persistent critic of what he perceives as downtown special interests, Newton has frequently portrayed the town as divided between downtown elites and the residents who live outside the historic district. Now an advocate for the comprehensive plan and a managed approach to growth, Newton has not shown such balance in the past. To be effective, he'd have to work with the very people he has attacked. More time is needed to determine if the new Paul Newton is more of a team player than the old version.