Nancy Oates | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Nancy Oates 

Chapel Hill Town Council

Name as it appears on the ballot: Nancy E. Oates
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website:
Occupation & employer: Self-employed writer and editor
Years lived in Chapel Hill: Nearly 20

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?

Despite all the upbeat talk from council members, the town has more traffic, more flooding, more independent businesses being forced out, less affordable housing and ever-more crowded schools since the last election. As a council member, I would work to shift that trajectory.

The current Town Council seems to believe increasing the population alone will benefit the town. I take into account other factors. Council has not planned infrastructure, such as roads and public transit to mitigate increased traffic, where to put new schools to accommodate the families moving in, and how to prevent runoff from the increased impervious surfaces from flooding its neighbors. Council looks at growth only from the narrow lens of how much gross revenue it will bring in. As a council member, I will not only calculate the net revenue but consider the use value as well. Replacing starter homes with de facto boarding houses in Northside, for instance, may raise the monetary value of the property, but it erodes the use value to the neighborhood. As a council member, I will empower the community’s voice in shaping the town where we all have chosen to live.

The town has some sound ordinances in place already; as a council member, I will have the resilience to hold firm that we respect them. Over the years, I’ve watched council exempt some developers from ordinances that protect trees and the Resource Conservation District and look the other way rather than enforce ordinances that limit exploitation of student renters.

In the near future, the town will have to deal with the maintenance and operating expenses it has put off. As we add population density, we need to increase bus service, yet we have budgeted insufficiently to replace our aging bus fleet, much less to expand it. Those looming bills have prompted council to look favorably on proposals that bring in revenue short term but cause more problems in the long run. Proposed changes to the Bed and Breakfast ordinance, for example, may increase short-term revenue but will diminish the character of historic neighborhoods that sets Chapel Hill apart and draws visitors. And OPEB looms. The town needs to resume payments toward that
liability now. As someone who practices priority budgeting in my personal and business life, I will evaluate projects and policies for their affordability. What is worth the investment, and what are the unintended consequences?

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

Affordability: Enable people who work here to live here. I have several ideas. Encourage UNC to convert empty dormitories to apartments for modestly paid hospital and campus employees. Protect Neighborhood Conservation Districts from being converted to larger and more lavish homes. Solicit proposals from workforce housing builders and remove obstacles to implementation. (After DHIC bungled its grant application, a for-profit builder asked to make a proposal for the property; all but one council member voted down the idea, thus delaying affordable housing another year.) Explore SECU interest-free loans to builders of affordable housing for teachers. Hire an MBA to strengthen the good work Empowerment does. Recruit a real estate attorney for the Housing Advisory Board so that its members can think outside the box and within the law. Beef up the Inspections Department to enforce ordinances and discourage the conversion of starter homes into student rentals.

Infrastructure: Plan for the impact of development, and figure out how to pay for it before approving the project. The extra traffic will require wider roads, more buses and additional parking. How will that affect surrounding neighborhoods? The additional families with children will need more schools. The school board turned down the unbuildable site offered at Obey Creek, but the town did not indicate an alternative site. Designate land now for a school that will be built once the development is finished. The town will need more recreation space as the population increases. How will that need be accommodated? Budget for it now.

Economic Development: Historically, independent businesses have had more stamina than national chains, and the independents contribute to our sense of place, what sets us apart from other towns our size. As a council member, I will find out what these businesses need from the town in order to flourish. Downtown businesses want more parking, yet the council is considering giving away a parking lot to a developer to be replaced with a building that will require more parking. Would building a parking deck be a better choice? Businesses want large office space, so I will leverage the town’s communications staff to get the word out to developers to propose what council will approve.

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?

My graduate work in how people make decisions, coupled with my experience working on publication teams, makes me an effective team player. Even when people disagree, I’m able to tack down points of agreement and move a project forward. My probation officer experience gives me resilience to ask hard questions, hold people accountable and follow through despite resistance. My work on Chapel Hill Watch and the knowledge of town issues I’ve acquired through watching nearly every Town Council meeting since 2009 demonstrates my commitment to empowering the community’s voice in shaping the town. I’ve spoken up at advisory board and council meetings. I’ve made follow-up phone calls and researched issues to bolster my opinions, and I’ve encouraged robust debate on my blog. This volunteer service takes a lot of time, but I do it because I love Chapel Hill, and I want this leafy and livable community with its excellent schools to remain an option for all who work here and otherwise contribute to our vibrancy.

Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council has done 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.

Town Council could have done a better job of include the community’s ideas, insights and expertise into the decision-making process of the Obey Creek development agreement. The public invested considerable time and effort into providing council with information, either individually or through serving on an advisory board, to shape a win-win project, including alternatives that would reduce the negative impact of development. Yet council members did not consider that information in their discussion and decision-making. Council wasted a valuable resource by ignoring that input. If elected, I will empower the community to contribute to the discussion and make their voices are part of the decision-making process.

Compare the Obey Creek decision in June 2015 with council’s approval in June 2014 of the Glen Lennox redevelopment, which had the support of the community due to a collaborative process. Glen Lennox addresses the community’s values of affordable housing, increased commercial development, pedestrian and cyclist safety, and preserving greenspace. Town Council planned the infrastructure to handle increased traffic and made sure the development blended well with its neighbors. The developer, the community and the town coffers all benefited.

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?

I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Before we buy, we need to know who is going to pay for it and how. We need to assess the risks and consider the unintended consequences. Everything has a cost; we need to ask what we are getting for our investment. Through my experience as a probation officer and a mom, I have the resilience to sometimes make unpopular choices for the greater good and see the process through.

On societal issues, I have long advocated for a diverse community, and I live my values that those of us with advantages share our good fortune to help others succeed.

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?

A guiding principle of my life has been “to whom much is given, much is required.” I am a public servant, not a politician. My advocacy for affordable housing has its roots in my strong belief that it is wrong to absorb regional growth by making room only for the wealthy. We must accommodate and welcome those who do jobs in town that many of us wouldn’t want to do and those who choose careers that will never make them rich. Many of us in town would hate to see Chapel Hill be reduced to a bedroom community for the wealthy. I have a history of giving encouragement to and empowering those who feel silenced or have little hope of change. As a council member, I will be in a better position to guide some necessary changes through to implementation.

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.

Add parking. I hear over and over again that residents don’t want to patronize downtown businesses because they have to work too hard to find parking. Yet town staff have proposed giving away a West Franklin Street parking lot to a private developer to be used to add even more residences and businesses that will need parking. Make parking more visible. Make parking free on weekends. (Find the money to make up the lost revenue by delaying adding a generator to a section of Town Hall.) Have a bus hub downtown that would bring more customers in who might take some time to shop before getting on another bus. Increase police foot patrols to discourage panhandlers (who are not to be confused with the homeless). Encourage businesses to offer special deals to those with a UNC staff, faculty or student ID. Ask small business owners what they want the town to do. (I have asked and repeatedly heard business owners say they want more parking spaces that are well-marked and have easy-to-use meters.)

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 stormwater runoff?

Begin by respecting the ordinances already on the books. The Edge developers have proposed building over a stream bed. Obey Creek developers want to put a road into the Resource Conservation District. As a council member, I would require developers to use their creativity and resources to build successfully within the parameters set by town ordinances. Otherwise, the community pays the price for making the projects more profitable to developers.

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.

(See my prior comments on affordability.) Current council members labor under the mistaken belief that adding more housing units will put downward pressure on price. We’ve tried that; it hasn’t worked. Town Council must take the lead in creating an environment where affordability can thrive. For example: Recruit workforce housing builders, and offer 100-year leases on town-owned land.

We are seeing the fruits of too many years of governance by political insiders. Having watched council for years talk about wanting affordable housing yet consistently approving projects and policies that undercut affordability, I believe the place to begin is electing someone such as myself who has no desire to be a career politician and who would make decisions without regard to how they will be perceived by deep-pocket donors to candidates in future elections. I have the resilience to hold firm to the values of the community. I have a track record of advocating for affordability and empowering other community advocates who are serious about increasing affordability. I have the teamwork experience to build on the current council’s surface agreement on the need for affordability and move that forward into tangible results.

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?

(See my prior comments on encouraging UNC to convert empty dormitories into apartments for hospital and campus employees.) The university is hurt by empty dormitories because Town Council approved new student apartments off-campus. The town is hurt by the many modestly paid state employees who commute long distances because they can’t afford to live here and thus spend the bulk of their money in another county. Providing housing on campus for those employees is a win-win. The $3 million 10-year interest-free loan to invest in reclaiming family homes in Northside is another way the university helps. Perhaps some apartments at Carolina Square could be designated for undergraduates. As a council member, I would brainstorm with UNC officials to come up with several innovative, small steps, such as town internships open only to students who live on campus, to create an environment that encourages living on campus.

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 attuned to the challenges to affordability in our community. I have misgivings about burdening taxpayers now with the $1 billion-plus price tag of a system that won’t mitigate our transit problems for decades. The first step is to get people out of their cars and into a public-transit mindset. Boosting bus service now will address the more immediate need, and it will serve to beta-test ridership on light rail.

As people become more accustomed to transportation modes other than cars, their attitudes will begin to change, and they might not be so resistant to the idea of light rail. As a council member, I will advocate for taking steps now that might lead to attitude changes later, especially important in a project such as light rail that won’t be built for many years. This is another example of how my experience helping people make small shifts in the present that result in greater trajectory changes later on will be helpful.

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?

*Homogenous by SES? Or race? What criteria? A recent presentation by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce said that although the black population is decreasing, Hispanic and Asian populations are on the rise.

Regardless, Town Council is in a position to create an environment in which the vision we have for our town can flourish. If we want diversity, we must make sure we have housing options for a wide range of people and incomes: working singles, families of all sizes, police officers, firefighters, teachers and retirees. (See also my prior comments on workforce housing.) Council needs to get the word out that it will approve housing options other than the high-rent apartments it has recently approved.

The town needs to work more closely with the school system to support the schools’ efforts to close the achievement gap and increase the success of disadvantaged students. Bringing high-speed Internet to public housing is one good example.

Town staff, including police, must rout any racial, gender and sexual orientation bias from its ranks so that all residents and visitors feel safe and welcome.

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