Jim Ward | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Jim Ward 

Chapel Hill Town Council

Name: Jim Ward
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Campaign Website: Give me a call: 919.740.0921, or ask a friend about me.
Occupation & employer: Director of Horticulture at the North Carolina Botanical Garden
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 41 years

1. Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

Generally, yes in that we are making progress on many fronts, including the following priorities:
Affordable housing – funding identified in Town budget, signed MOU to solidify partnership with Community Home Trust, improved coordination between Town staff, advisory boards and several area NGO providers, contributed land (valued at $2m) for affordable housing project near Town Cemetery.
Adding Retail/Office Opportunities in Chapel Hill - Every little bit helps to increase Town revenues associated with commercial office and retail business property tax and/or sales tax, thus lightening burden on residential property owners.
Transit Options – The long-term financial health of Chapel Hill Transit is becoming clearer and is attainable thru strong partnership between Town of Chapel Hill, UNC at Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Additionally, recent 1/2cent sales tax for light-rail/transit is a new revenue stream that has and will help provide resources for improved and extended bus service. Lastly, the infrastructure and connectivity for alternative modes of transportation (bike/walk) have been improving and are primed to vastly improved now that an approved Bike Master Plan is in place, a Pedestrian Master Plan is planned for near future and funding will be forthcoming, should Chapel Hill voters support Town’s 2015 Bond Package.
Environmental Integrity remains very high on my list of priorities and continues to be important to CH residents. In particular, the 2015 Bond Package will help us fund identified Storm water priorities.

2. Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

Affordable/Workforce Housing - I continue to support the nurturing our existing housing stock, and in particular, those homes and neighborhoods with houses affordable to low and medium income families (as well as our vibrant Historic Districts). We have great partners in our community (Community Home Trust, Habitat For Humanity, Empowerment, CASA, DHIC and UNC at Chapel Hill) helping us leverage our dollars. Within the last 6 months the Towns, and County signed a MOU solidifying the 20+ year partnership with the Community Home Trust, which has an increasing inventory (230+) of homes. Political, community and funding support remain strong, though it’s been disappointing to see Federal funding decrease.
Identify long-term sustainable funding plan for Chapel Hill Transit – We are nearing the completion of a multi-year study which is already helping the Chapel Hill Transit Partners (Town of Chapel Hill, UNC at Chapel Hill and Carrboro) identify priority needs and funding strategies that will put us on a sound, long-term financial footing. Revenue from the recently past ½ cent sales tax increase for public transportation has already begun to help fund current needs, strategic service improvements, in addition to accumulating financial resources for future light-rail vision. Public transportation + bike and pedestrian infrastructure are key ingredients to my interest in making Chapel Hill more affordable for families of any income level.

Taking some of the tax pressure off residential property owners by strategically locating and increasing local retail and office opportunities. I have been supportive of economic development proposals that are of the right size (pedestrian scale), right mix (mostly retail and/or office with some residential) and in the right location (near existing infrastructure). These efforts also provide more local shopping options (and less driving to neighboring counties + much needed sales tax revenue), and more local jobs (and less need to commute to work). A subset of this effort can be seen in the several ways we have established partnerships with the UNC at Chapel Hill, Orange County, and the Downtown Partnership to create affordable office space, mentoring, and high-speed internet for a growing number of young entrepreneurs.

3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as mayor or as a member of the Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

The Councils I have been a part of have consistently made progress on the Town’s priorities described above. Often times, over the last 16 years, I have been a strong, clear voice (and vote) to continue moving our community towards greater sustainability; by improving social justice of each of our residents; by maintaining an excellent record of environmental protection for our streams and woodlands; and growing the economic vitality and opportunities, especially for our small business owners.

I started out being a member of Town Council who had professional credentials and a well-known personal commitment to environmental issues, partly because of my work at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. And over the last several years I made a concerted effort to learn about the legacy of and persistent social injustices in our community, which has caused me to become equally passionate about righting those wrongs. Lastly, I came late to the game of understanding the economics of our community, but now have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the problems, their causes, what we’ve tried, what’s worked, and who we need to solicit as partners.

4. Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council hasdone wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

I do not think the Town Council should have ‘pulled the trigger’ on the Ephesus/Fordham Form-based Code District, and I voted against it.
I think the reasoning behind this effort is sound, and some of the benefits we hope to achieve are worthwhile, but we, at least needed to give it more time.
In particular, we should not have ‘thrown away’ our most valuable tool for getting private developers to pay for some of the priority Town needs, such as, affordable density. (We took off the table, our ability to swap any increase in density for units of affordable housing.) Secondly, very late in the process, I learned that we would be asking the County to share some of the costs associated with improved street network, etc. In my opinion, we needed to include County officials, starting at the early stages of this process, making them much more likely to be supportive of any requests for financial assistance.

The single best thing we’ve accomplished in the last year is associated with Chapel Hill Transit, a key piece of making our community work well. The initiation and ongoing process of looking critically at what it will take to keep CHT stable financially over the long-term was much needed. While we have not completed this effort, we have already identified a much brighter and clear road ahead, one that will begin to help us address our immediate and ongoing need for new buses. Additionally, the process has made our partnership with the University and Carrboro stronger and more resilient.

5. How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

Political philosophy – Progressive. I definitely think town government has an important role to play, across the spectrum of issues – social, environmental, economic. And we need to be able to see when to get out of the way, when to move forward on our own and when to find partnerships…

6. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

I share the ‘build a just community’ mission with the Indy, and believe I’ve demonstrated over the last 16 years on the CH Town Council that I’m consistent, true and effective when it comes to making it a priority to work hard to fix the problems or at least, improve the situation when seeing and hearing of injustices within our greater community.

As described above, affordable housing + public transportation are top priorities for me, as this infrastructure is of critical importance to everyone living in Chapel Hill, but in particular, to low income families.
A couple of years ago I witnessed former Town employees go thru the Appeals Board process, and, in my opinion, it was not fair, yet it was legal and by the book. I let others on the Council know what I saw, as did others. With the help of many local community leaders, along with a willing Council and Town Manager, Chapel Hill has a much improved process to deal with employment issues, including comprehensive training for supervisors, an Ombudsman, etc. Time will tell, but I believe we’ve come a long way towards a more just system for all Town employees.

I continue to be very involved in the Council’s efforts to recognize the social leaders of yesterday and today, thru naming events hosted at Peace and Justice Plaza (in front of the old Post Office).

7. Small businesses, particularly those on Franklin Street, continue to open and close at an alarming rate. Please give one new idea that you believe will help small business owners steady their operations.

I’ve lived in Chapel Hill for the last 40+ years and agree that the turnover rate of businesses in downtown Franklin Street is higher, but under the circumstances, I don’t believe professionals in this field consider it ‘alarming’. The lingering impacts of the historic economic downturn is one of the most significant factors, in the form of an extremely difficult lending climate, making it difficult to borrow money to upgrade businesses… and competition is fierce. On the positive side, the overall vacancy rate for first floor Restaurant/Retail/Commercial space downtown is 7.8%. Including office vacancy the overall number is 11% which is considered very low.
Lastly, our current mix of Independent to Chain businesses in downtown is 79.7% independent, which I’m told, indicates a strong local presence.

My suggestion to help small business owners steady their operations is to improve our efforts on many fronts, including funding for the CH/Orange County Visitors Bureau and Downtown Partnership, upgrade sidewalk lighting so a more even, higher intensity lighting throughout downtown, strategically lower the cost of parking, and improve wayfinding signage.

8. Between the Ephesus-Fordham district redevelopment and the newly approved Obey Creek development, Chapel Hill has seen a bevy of high-density, mixed-use proposals move forward in recent years. How do you balance such development with lingering environmental concerns such as protecting local creeks and limiting storm water runoff?

In both the Ephesus-Fordham district and Obey Creek development, we were able to include much stricter stormwater requirements, than required by the State or Town Ordinance.

At Obey Creek, the developer agreed to pay for a much higher level of stormwater protection and monitoring, during and after construction. These actions are designed to protect Wilson Creek, which runs immediately south of Obey Creek’s core development. Lastly, the Obey Creek project is a great example of cluster/conservation development, where 85 of the site’s 120 ac total will be protected/owned in perpetuity by the Town of Chapel Hill, with soil disturbance, caused by the development, restricted to the remaining 35 ac. The developer also agreed to limit site disturbance at anytime to 5 ac. Town and County staff will be on site to provide rigorous oversight on actual performance of infrastructure to ensure methods are working as designed to protect water quality and stream health.

Ephesus-Fordham, the existing stormwater problems are significant, but we have incorporated meaningful upgrades as part of the infrastructure improvements being made district-wide. Additionally, we are in the early stages of doing a watershed study , which will help us identify large and small opportunities to address the significant and long-standing stormwater issues.

9. Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Chapel Hill. We've seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.

Fresh ideas to effectively deal with our need for more affordable housing include the following: Involve our very active Chamber of Commerce to be a stronger partner in dealing with our need for affordable Workforce Housing, that is housing which mirrors local employment opportunities. Likewise, we need UNC at Chapel Hill and UNC Healthcare to play a much bigger role. They are both employers with 1000’s of jobs that are in the category of family incomes we are working to serve. It’s good business to have ones workforce living nearby, so they can get to work easily as well as be hands on, involved parents/family members. Our fare-free bus system also needs to be an important part of the solutions. As Chair of the Transit Partners, I’ve seen both the University and Carrboro, work with Chapel Hill to solve problems for the benefit of the greater community. Together we can be much more successful.

The Town of Chapel Hill has been committed to paying a ‘living wage’ for several years, so we are not contributing to the problem in that way. Getting UNC and UNC Healthcare to do the same is largely in the hands of the State Legislature.

Lastly, we’ve become more comfortable with smaller size (550-850 sq. ft.) housing units, and have begun to accept that as an effective strategy to lower the cost of housing.

10. In Chapel Hill, the university provides a prosperous retail base, fuel for a feisty cultural scene and a pipeline for local leadership. But its presence also contributes a great deal to Chapel Hill's housing problem. What could the university do better with regard to local housing needs? How would you work to foster such agreements? 

UNC (and UNC Healthcare) are doing some good things to help out with CH’s need for affordable housing, but I’m convinced that they can and should do more. (See #9) problem…
An important element of determining what UNC can do better, regarding local housing needs, is to have a series of public round-table conversations about this issue, with follow meetings, and I will be advocating that the CH Town Council schedule such a meeting(s). We have an excellent relationship with University leadership, with several years of productive conversations on a variety of topics, so I’m confident we can make some progress. One entity frequently missing is leadership representing UNC Heathcare, which I’ve been asking be changed. There are many ways UNC and UNC Healthcare could help our greater community be more successful, so I’m confident we’ll be able to find common ground and meaningful ways for them to contribute.

11. Certain Chapel Hill neighborhoods have objected to the light rail line that is currently being planned. They are concerned that the rail line will create dangerous traffic problems and otherwise disrupt their quality of life. What do you believe the city can or should do to address their concerns? 

I am aware of these perceptions and to some degree share them, and have asked follow up questions during public meetings to try and tease a part the difference between perception and factual/real safety issues. I will continue to listen to all concerns, and help to ensure these are addressed satisfactorily. I think we are still in the very earliest stages of locating and designing the plan, with many opportunities remaining for the public and elected leadership to identify areas of concern and options to improve.

12. Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homogeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?

I believe diversity in Chapel Hill is actually growing, though not in the traditional way. Our black and white population percentages are declining, while Asian and Hispanic populations are on the rise.

We continue to encourage diversity with employment policies and access to healthcare policies that are inclusive. We provide Town materials in English and Spanish. Our buses are equipped to serve those on bike or in a wheel chair. We celebrate community leaders who have made it a priority to show the rest of us that bigotry is wrong. We identified a major highway leading to the heart of our downtown, as the road we want to rename after Martin Luther King, Jr. We work hard to provide meaningful opportunities for everyone to participate in Town decisions thru membership on advisory boards, and maintaining welcoming climate during comment periods of all Town Council meetings. We aspire to show respect to all in Chapel Hill.

  • Chapel Hill Town Council

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