Laurin Easthom | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Laurin Easthom 

Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Laurin Easthom
Full legal name, if different: Laurinda de Beck Easthom
Date of birth: 08/23/64
Home address: 104 Livingston Place, Chapel Hill, NC 27516
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site:
Occupation & employer: Chapel Hill Town Council (and part time DDS)
Home phone: 919-942-0001
Work phone: n/a

1. What is there in your public record or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be an effective leader? Please be specific about your public and community service background.

I have served on the Chapel Hill Town Council for the last four years, and also on the town's Transportation Board and Horace Williams Citizens Committee prior to that. In the seven years I have lived within the town limits, six of those years have been directly related to public service for the town and community. With my experience I have shown I am an effective leader in a variety of ways. In working with the University on Carolina North's development agreement, I proved that I was able to work well and very professionally under pressure and still make sure that the Town's interests were best represented. I currently serve as the council liaison to the Community Home Trust (affordable housing), and have worked creatively with the council and the Home Trust board to ensure it remains financially stable. I continue to be the council member who leads the effort on a municipal broadband initiative for the Town. At this point the Town will be placing a fiber optic line with our upgrade of our traffic signal system to provide a backbone for future internet and video services. We have applied for stimulus funds for continuing our broadband initiative. Another example of leadership is my convincing a large corporation to change its ways to benefit the health and environment, at least in Chapel Hill. I worked very hard with our staff to convince Duke Energy to not spray herbicides in power easements in Town. We were the first city they agreed to do this for. This effort led to a legislative request to our local and regional representatives (Verla Insko and Pricey Harrison) to expand this to all parts of the state, and currently it is a bill before a House committee. Outside of town politics I volunteer in the school system where my children attend school, and am a member of the PTA.

2. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am a democrat and work to ensure that the Town continues to provide excellent services for the taxes we do pay. In the last four years we have only raised taxes one time. That is important here in town in order to keep Chapel Hill an affordable place to live, yet we do value the services we receive. A democratic strategy that has influenced me here in Town is to ensure that our human services agencies continue to receive the funding they need in order to provide very necessary community services. Examples include the IFC, the Orange County Retired Senior Volunteer Program, the YMCA afterschool program. Another democratic strategy that has influenced me has been support of a living wage for Town employees. We adopted an official living wage this past spring which was a step in the right direction, but I think we need to raise this particular hourly wage. A graduated program to lift up our lowest paid employees is an important goal of mine this coming budget year.

3. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

I think there may be future discussions on making our panhandling ordinance stricter for downtown. While I would entertain perhaps expanding to a few more locations where panhandlers may not operate (such as museums or theaters), I am not in favor of "removing" panhandlers or effectively removing them by expanding the amount of feet away from a storefront that would essentially put them out in the street. Panhandlers have the right to panhandle in most places, but they certainly cannot threaten the public by aggressive panhandling or panhandling aggressively after dark.

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

I feel that a just community is obtained by electing council members like me that are good at listening to all sides before making any decisions. I would, as a council member again, make sure that the ability of all sides to make their points is heard. An example: It is time to consider a civilian review board for our police. By suggesting such a board, I in no way infer that I do not have confidence in our police or police chief in handling matters internally. However, the rights of citizens, and the feelings of those rights being duly exercised is important when considering one's freedom and perceived threats to freedom. Along those same lines, a just community is one in which information is equally accessible to all, despite income levels. I am still helping bridge the digital divide with efforts of providing wireless internet to those in need. As I mention above, we are moving along in the right direction. No one should be at a disadvantage in learning in school, obtaining job leads, or applying for jobs online, because they cannot afford Time Warner , AT&T, etc. internet fees. Further, some day these companies could carve up information on the internet and charge higher fees for getting all information, versus lower levels of information at lower costs. This concept of net neutrality is very important to me. The wireless internet of today is like the cell phone of yesterday. It should be affordable and commonplace and ubiquitous.

5. In the midst of a difficult economic situation and a tough budget year, what's one thing that the town is cutting that you would save and what's one thing that's been saved that you would cut?

This past year, one item the town "cut" was funding to Empowerment, Inc, and especially it's Youth Program which I fought tooth and nail to support the previous year to save (and was successful), since it was at risk then, too. The Youth program is so important to roughly 15 teenagers who need something positive to do during their summers---it provides them a working experience and teaches job skills all summer with local businesses, in order to bolster their pre-college "resumes" or prepare them for the work world after high school. I would have saved this if I could have (but did not have staff or council majority support) and I aim to push for it again if I'm elected this year. The one thing that is being "saved that I would cut" is actually an expenditure that absolutely must be addressed this coming year. The town paid $1.1 million this year to cover the costs of a 17% increase in medical insurance costs for all employees. While I am not in favor of cutting the actual benefits themselves, I think the town needs to begin early to shop around for other companies' benefits. While it is true that there are not many companies to choose from, I think it makes sense to do extra work to try and mitigate these escalating costs. There may be ways to "shop" around in terms of how benefits are administered versus the companies themselves.

6. What's your approach to growth in Chapel Hill? Where should the town grow? How do leaders manage it?

Growth in town should be balanced. In other words, if we are to accept higher density along major corridors, then we should do so without creating a line of tall buildings all up and down the street. Visual breaks and preservation of open space is just as important on major corridors as it is in other parts of the town. An example is East 54 and the possibility of developing Glen Lennox across the street. With so much building façade of East 54 showing, I cannot imagine the huge trees of Glen Lennox going anywhere. We just wouldn't be able to recognize this section of Chapel Hill anymore. No one wants that. So a balance of trees and green and buildings (not too tall- five stories or lower) is the best way to grow and preserve the rural buffer, in my opinion. The town doesn't have much room to grow, as there is not much available land. However I think reasonable growth can occur as redevelopment opportunities in areas such as Rams Plaza and the old Volvo Dealership, and along major corridors with balance. How leaders manage this is by creating a vision for how we want to grow, and following that vision into considering future zones for development/redevelopment. We are currently in this process with our Visioning Task Force and I look forward to their upcoming report.

7. Do you think recent efforts to revitalize Franklin Street, such as adding welcome flags, using new parking rules, implementing Touchdown Carolina, etc. have been effective? What more needs to be done downtown? What would you do to increase occupancy rates and make Franklin Street a more vibrant and economically successful entity?

Recent efforts as mentioned above are a great start to revitalize Franklin Street. But there is so much else that is happening to revitalize Franklin Street that the public is not perhaps aware of. For instance, the Town has an exciting Streetscape Master Plan that addresses the look and feel of even the smallest elements of downtown. The Town has funding currently to begin two pilot projects that will be mini-parks ("nano parks") incorporating a green park like area with artistic elements that will serve as a nice visual break to buildings and sidewalks and serve as a place to relax. The Streetscape Master Plan also incorporates better lighting for safety, and other interesting design features such as brick crosswalks, colored concrete/brick paving, granite curbs, more areas for open space to incorporate art or greenery. We are close to overall downtown design completion, and once that happens, we have significant bond money available to begin some of these wonderful elements mentioned above, and others. On another note, last spring I requested that the Downtown Partnership provide the council with quarterly reports on continued concerns and issues that businesses have with their success downtown. As a result, the council now has an updated list of those concerns and a closer working relationship with the Partnership. The council now has accountability in addressing those issues that it can control. Also, I am very excited about the new artists coop on Franklin Street. What a wonderful way to create an interesting artistic scene that does nothing but enhance the experience downtown. One way to encourage more of these types of businesses is to offer small business loans to local businesses in need of start up funds. We have recently done this on one occasion, but I am hoping in next year's budget that we can expand such a service as incentive to locate to downtown.

8. While Greenbridge has been lauded as an environmentally friendly housing development, there are also concerns that it threatens adjacent lower-income neighborhoods. What do you think the town's strategy should be in regards to gentrification?

The Town can do the best it can by providing affordable housing, via our Community Home Trust. Affordable housing doesn't always have to happen when a new development is constructed and there is an automatic 15% within the development itself, it can happen when an entity like the CHT can buy a home from a willing seller (always!) in a neighborhood like Northside and institute it's own ability to keep that home affordable by using subsidy to renovate and help keep mortgages low despite the inevitable increase in property value. Empowerment is another organization that can help by being able to manage rental units, which is something they have told me they are interested in doing. The Town must be sensitive to the issue of gentrification when considering approval of luxury condos adjacent to lower income housing, and ensure that adequate measures are in place to preserve the history and culture of those residents.

9. Do you agree with Community Home Trust Executive Director Robert Dowling that the town's affordable housing policy is not working? If so, what needs to be done to correct this? As for public housing, how should the town continue to manage these developments in light of reduced federal funding? What your opinion Chapel Hill's inclusionary zoning procedure and its intent? Are the right people being served by it? Are the right types of properties (ie) condos, single-family homes, etc) available through the program? Should payment in lieu be accepted? Is the program, as it stands now, in a position to provide long-term success for residents?

I have had the privilege to serve as the council liaison to the Community Home Trust and have been a board member. Thus, I have an informed opinion as to the successes and future of this organization. Inclusionary zoning is a good thing, as it is one way to guarantee that the Town can get more affordable units in new development. However, I think the right type of affordable unit is important. I do not see the benefit of continuing to approve condo projects that allot primarily 1 BR units as their affordable units. Robert Dowling and his part time sales staff will tell you these can be very difficult to sell and resell. We have enough, in my opinion. What about affordable housing for FAMILIES? No family can cram into a 1 BR unit. We need more 2 or 3 or 4 BR units that are affordable to families. Are the "right people" being served by inclusionary zoning? I would answer that we need more affordable units for those that are below the 50% average income level, and as I stated above, do more for families. As far as payment in lieu, yes it should be accepted for allowing the council flexibility when dealing with developers, and to allow continued funding support to the 150+ (and more coming) homes now currently with the CHT. Why does the CHT need more funding? The challenges that the CHT faces are not unlike those that any individual homeowner has, but multiply those challenges by 150 times. The homes that the CHT owns and keeps affordable need maintenance periodically, and not all CHT homeowners maintain their homes because they can't afford to. So occasionally, huge expenses are incurred when someone moves out and the house needs to be sold again. As an example, a financially strapped homeowner lives in a home for years, never has it painted or the HVAC serviced, and did not notice or treat a termite problem. Who pays for that? The CHT. Thousands of dollars can be incurred on the turnover of one home, and that's just maintenance. The "cost" of time and reselling the home is also an issue. The CHT thankfully has instituted an affordable stewardship fee which current owners pay into that helps with some of the maintenance costs, but over time, the amounts that government allocates and the amount of the stewardship fund just is not enough. The staff of the CHT really can only handle so much work, also. This organization is not large, there are six full time employees and four part time. As the inventory load increases on the CHT, the stress of how to manage selling, reselling, maintenance, etc. is felt given the staff and current funding. Imagine "owning" 200 homes and having families live in them for relatively short periods of time (although homeowners do stay and can stay for all of their lives so long as they still remain qualified) and then having to maintain them for resale, and then keep them affordable to someone else! The fact that the CHT has done such a great job of this so far speaks volumes. I think it would be irresponsible of the Town of Chapel Hill to just throw hundreds of units toward the CHT and expect them to deal with it. The payment in lieu allows CHT some financial help in keeping the homes that currently exist affordable, and to help plan for and keep future units affordable.

10. What makes Chapel Hill unique to you? How would you preserve that while advancing it?

What makes Chapel Hill unique to me is it's history, small town charm and the trees and open space. To preserve those things, it's imperative that we take a good long study of where this town needs to grow. I do not want older neighborhoods with large 100 year old trees to become threatened and redeveloped in a modern manner. Our neighborhood conservation overlay district has worked well in many older neighborhoods to preserve that history. I think the council should think about balance when approving higher density projects, so that those elements we value will live on despite some expected growth. An example is Glen Lennox. The trees are huge, the houses relatively small and older, and the park is a place which my kids frequented when they were younger. I believe the area is historical and generations of Chapel Hillians that have lived there or those that have visited most definitely know and appreciate Glen Lennox. To retain small town charm is difficult but achievable. I think there is a point at which we decide in Chapel Hill that we have grown enough, and that we are becoming too crowded with more density and we are on the brink of forgetting what the word "community" means. I hope it doesn't progress to that point and we have the foresight to anticipate when enough is enough.

11. With that in mind, the town's comprehensive plan emphasizes regional planning and cooperation. How should this collaboration take place? On what kinds of issues? And, what strategies would you borrow from your neighbors that could work in Chapel Hill?

I think we would do well to work closely within our own county and with neighboring counties in the areas of transportation and downtown revitalization efforts. As far as transportation, we need to work with Chatham County and keep apprised of its explosive residential development, assuming that a good number of those people moving there would be commuting to Chapel Hill to work. A regional cooperation in transit, especially there, would aim to remove more cars from the heavily traveled 15-501/54 area. As far as downtown revitalization, I believe that Durham's downtown tobacco district has done an amazing job of incorporating its older history into an extremely interesting, artistic, exciting place to visit. The waterfall feature and the interesting ways that area has become a "cool" destination is something that I would love to see emulated, in some form or fashion, in downtown Chapel Hill.

12. How do you view UNC's relationship with the town? What's the state of it, given recent Carolina North developments? How will you help further that relationship in the future?

UNC's relationship with the town is at its highest point, in my opinion, having culminated in a very complex development agreement between Town and Gown that will guide the development of Carolina North for the next 20-50 years. The Town and UNC worked together and muddled through some very difficult issues, some of which were long standing tensions that had existed between town and gown. We worked well together under, we compromised, we talked about the areas where we did not agree in a civilized manner, and we came to an agreement to continue the collaboration over the next decades to ensure the University expands as it needs to with Carolina North, but not at the expense of the Town's quality of life. I will help further that relationship because I have a positive outlook, and because I have been a part of establishing those good relations over the last several years with the Trustees and two Chancellors. Relationships and trust take time to build, and I have been a part of that.

13. The 10-year plan to end homelessness is underway. How will the town monitor progress on the plan? What accountability measures are or should be in place? What are the hurdles to accomplishing it? How can the town overcome those obstacles? What is not in the plan that should be?

The Town has a community development planner named Jaime Rohe and our current council member Sally Greene serving as the liasions and advocates for the community's ten year plan to end homelessness. The town is working closely with the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, and accountability of the program is evident in its numbers of homeless that have been served in a variety of ways. In 2006 there were 237 counted homeless individuals, in 2007 there were 224 and in 2008 there were 195. Various entities all work together to begin to end homelessness, and progress is being made. For instance, Housing for New Hope has provided Homeless Outreach in downtown Chapel Hill. According to the annual report, "(this) program has engaged over 279 homeless people and enrolled 52 in the PATH Program that provides ongoing case management to help them gain access to services." This is truly a remarkable effort. One of the things that the Town has been actively a participant in at the Hargraves Center is the annual Project Homeless Connect. Last year's event served 202 people thanks to 300 volunteers and 50 service providers from all over the community. That day, 400 lunches were served. The next event is coming up on October 8. Since the Town is a part of this larger effort, it stays in touch by its various ways of participating or hosting events. Jaime Roche is our direct staff contact and keeps us apprised of upcoming events and progress. One of the biggest hurdles to ending homelessness here is community perception and participation. One of the efforts to tackle those issues exists with the Downtown Partnership's Real Change from Spare Change program. This program not only seeks finances to help with the homeless, but serves to educate the community and downtown businesses on the nature of homelessness. Part of that education is to realize it really does take a community effort, of many individuals, to help those that are truly in need. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is an effort that needs the Town of Chapel Hill and its citizens to participate and understand this complex, important human issue.

14. What important town departments or agencies have been, in your opinion, chronically underfunded? What have been the ramifications of that shortage? If elected, where would you find the money to more fairly fund these areas? Conversely, what town departments or agencies have been overfunded?

The areas that have been chronically underfunded have been in the public housing area (community development block grants), thanks to the previous Bush administration's federal cuts to these programs. Another underfunded area is what I have mentioned above, Empowerment, and also Habitat for Humanity. Additionally, I think the Community Home Trust should receive more funding, and also the YMCA afterschool program. Unfortunately the Town cannot do anything about the level of CDBG funds that assist us in good programs such as Habitat, Empowerment and our own public housing, but we can use funds to to fund programs such as Empowerment's Youth Summer Program and the YMCA afterschool program. This past year was an extremely difficult and tight budget year due to the terrible economy, and we were lucky to get by without cutting services or jobs. This year will be a bit better, yet still very challenging. After this coming year, I feel we will be more able to fund these programs I mention and fund them hopefully at higher levels. Answer to the last question: I do not feel that any town departments or agencies have been overfunded, but I think the Chapel Hill Public Library should not have to be funded by just the resident tax payers of Chapel Hill when 40% of those that use the library pay no taxes to the town and don't live here.

15. Many of the town's workers live in outside communities due to the high cost of living in Chapel Hill and the lack of what some term "a living wage." What would you do to address this? Should it be addressed? Is it important for our police, firemen and public works officials to live in the community that they serve?

While serving on the council, I fought pretty hard to try and get the Town to raise up its proposed living wage salary to $13/hour. The Town ended up creating a living wage policy with the hourly pay at around $11/hour. I was glad that we now have a living wage policy, but I was not satisfied with the rate. I know the Town has excellent benefits, and that is often used to justify why an hourly rate has to be at a certain level, but I think we also need to realize that the cost of driving in to Chapel Hill to work (which is unfortunate and I will address below) and to pay for basic expenses is rising and comes out of a paycheck. Of course it is important for our police, firemen, public works officials to live in the community they serve. It pains me greatly that many of them cannot do so. One solution to the problem is to ensure that we have enough affordable housing for FAMILIES here in town. Working with our Community Home Trust, we should encourage developers to provide 2,3,4 BR affordable units within their 15% affordable housing. I live next door to a teacher who lives in a Community Home Trust home and she very much appreciates her home and where she lives, and that she doesn't have to commute in from some other county for her job at UNC. With a higher hourly wage for a true "living wage" in Chapel Hill, and affordable housing opportunities for FAMILIES being more numerous than they are, we will see more of our town workers becoming a living part of our community, not just a working part of our community.

  • Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

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