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The Independent's picks for Orange and Chatham counties.

Orange and Chatham Counties 

Chapel Hill
Can Chapel Hill keep its soul? The UNC-Chapel Hill campus is about to explode from within, and a new campus, on the 1,000-acre Horace Williams tract off Airport Road, will start to take shape soon with the goal of attracting "research partners" (read: corporations). The university's plan for Horace Williams includes 22,000 parking spaces. Think about that in a town of 50,000. Think about that kind of development in a town that has drawn an urban growth boundary around itself so growth can't sprawl out and must, therefore, be taken in.

The danger is that only the affluent will get in--that land prices within the boundary will escalate, and the bidding will eliminate everyone else. But without economic and social diversity, without the artists, visiting lecturers and permanent seekers-after-truth who bring it to life, Chapel Hill would be as stodgy as some other places we could name around here.

All the candidates, it must be said, recognize the danger. But averting it will require tough policymaking and a willingness to bend growth to meet the town's goals--not the other way around. Judged by that standard, some candidates stand out from the rest.

Mayor
There's much to like about all three mayoral hopefuls. Cam Hill is right that in a better world North Carolina would be spending big bucks on the UNC campuses in Fayetteville and Elizabeth City, not gilding Chapel Hill's. The former owner of a woodworking business who's cut back to be a stay-at-home dad, Hill is the "hell, no" candidate who says the town should fight growth with everything it's got. The problem is, Hill's knowledge of what it will take to do that is scant at best.

Lee Pavao, in contrast, has put in eight years on the Town Council and several more before that as a volunteer who helped establish Chapel Hill's Senior Center and run its Parks and Recreation Commission. A retired advertising executive, Pavao is popular with some progressives, who cite his good works on social justice causes. And what he says about critical growth issues is generally on the mark. However, his record on the council isn't, and it indicates that Pavao, though he has the right goals, won't be tough enough to get them accomplished. In too many cases, he's come down on the side of a developer's "rights" without enough consideration for the community's. For example: Pavao voted in favor of the huge Meadowmont project, and he continues to defend his vote. While Meadowmont isn't all bad, its deficiencies were sufficiently clear that the council should have sent the developer back to the drawing board. Moreover, while Pavao has backed the council's affordable-housing efforts over the last four years, he didn't take initiative in his first four. He's been a good follower, but not the leader.

The leader throughout his one four-year council term on affordable housing and growth management is Kevin Foy, our choice for mayor. Foy, an attorney, combines a passion for social justice with quiet tenacity and the attention to policymaking detail that is needed to assure that Chapel Hill's growth feeds its soul but doesn't engorge it. Foy rightly says that Meadowmont didn't include nearly enough lower-cost housing. More importantly, he said it back in 1995 when he first ran for mayor and when, just before the election, Pavao and the council majority approved the development. Since winning a council seat in 1997, Foy has added substance to the town's theretofore vague goal of having 15 percent of every housing development comprised of affordable units. He forced that requirement on the first developer who came looking for a rezoning; lo and behold, now the council makes it a prerequisite for any rezoning.

Foy's social-justice bent goes back to his law school days, when he helped found an association to fight for gay and lesbian rights, and it continues to show up. He's uncompromising on the growth boundary and floodplain protection; he's also out front when it comes to improving bus service, opposing road widenings and achieving the dense mix of housing needed to make the boundary work.

We agree with a former member of the council who, in backing Pavao, cautioned against thinking that there are huge differences between him and Foy. Not in philosophy, anyway. But given how formidable the growth issues have become, philosophy alone won't get the job done. It'll take grit too, and on the record, Foy's got more of it.

Town Council
With Foy and Pavao seeking higher office and Councilor Joyce Brown stepping down, at least three of the four members elected this year will be new. All 10 candidates have something to recommend them. Four, though, are strongest on growth issues while adding other valuable expertise: Dorothy Verkerk, Ed Harrison, Larry Daquioag and Mark Kleinschmidt.

Verkerk, an art history professor at the university, has a strong record on a range of issues from historic preservation to public transit. But she is uniquely prepared to lead on an issue of increasing importance: building more sidewalks and bike lanes. As chair of the town's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, Verkerk has put a plan together and a budget: $675,000 over the next five years, $450,000 more than is currently budgeted. That would be money well spent, and Verkerk can help see that it is.

Harrison is a longtime environmental consultant and activist who is currently an elected member of the Durham County Soil and Conservation Board. He lives in the part of Chapel Hill that is in Durham County, an advantage in that he knows the 15-501 corridor issues from both ends. Harrison would bring special expertise to the council on water-quality issues like stream buffers and storm water management. He's also been active with the Triangle J Council of Governments, giving him a broad regional perspective.

Daquioag is a retired medical technician who consults with corporations setting up science labs in the area. What distinguishes him is his service on the town's Housing and Community Development Advisory Board and his pledge to make affordable housing his highest priority.

On growth issues, a number of other candidates, including Planning Board member Bob Reda and neighborhood activist Lisa Everett, sound pretty good, but lapse into believing that it's enough to set "strong standards," while being "flexible" in their application. That's also our objection to the one incumbent seeking re-election, Edith Wiggins. Wiggins keeps voting with developers, for road expansions (e.g., Weaver Dairy Road) and for pushing the urban growth boundary out, while telling us she's "extremely ambivalent" about the consequences. D.R. Bryan, the lawyer-developer who built Southern Village, would be an attractive candidate but for the fact that he is, after all, a developer and would have a considerable professional interest in what the council decides.

For the fourth seat, Richard Giersch or Diane VandenBroek would be reasonable choices. Giersch is smart and well-informed. VandenBroek, too, is progressive on the issues and would bring the perspective of a retired IBM programmer who doesn't just talk about affordable housing but actually lives in it. Neither, though, has any record of civic involvement.

Kleinschmidt does: We recommend him as a forceful advocate of progressive causes. A former social studies teacher who earned a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill last year, Kleinschmidt works for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation representing low-income clients facing trial for murder. Openly gay, he serves on the board of Equality PAC, a gay and lesbian rights organization, and on the Democratic Party's state executive committee. He's got a living wage for town employees on his agenda. We hope he can make that happen.

Carrboro
Carrboro, fair Carrboro. Where else can you find a walkable community on the cusp of a giant university? A diverse, environmentally vigilant town that successfully promotes small businesses? A surplus of solid progressive candidates? During the 1999 elections, several top spots in Carrboro town government, including the mayor's office, were won by uncontested candidates. This time, the ballot offers an embarrassment of riches--and presents the tricky task of deciding which of several highly qualified, proven progressives to vote for.

The task is important because the good life in Carrboro's not a given. The town has managed creeping growth exceedingly well over the last decade, but it's about to face a major new influx of residents, and must continue to grapple with long-term cost-of-living issues. UNC-Chapel Hill's pending expansion will certainly hit Carrboro hard. And property rates and rents are already running so high that some of the town's essential workers are being priced out.

Mayor
Residents of Carrboro are in the enviable position of being able to re-elect Mayor Michael Nelson. Walking around Carrboro, there's ample evidence of how Nelson's proactive policies have paid off. Wide-open spaces grace the landscape. The new Century Center, a multipurpose meeting hall in the heart of the town, hosts a wide range of cultural and community events. And much of the "mom and pop retail" sector, from grocery stores to quirky gift shops, is flourishing. Nelson has focused on keeping growth in check. "Carrboro has adopted the strictest anti-sprawl, environmental protection ordinances in the state," he notes with pride. In this case, staying the course will mean continued progress for Carrboro.

In 1999, Nelson ran uncontested. This year, Stacey Smith, an organizational consultant with no political experience, tossed her hat in the ring just to make things interesting. "Debate and discourse are the heart of our political system, and without at least two candidates you don't have that," she says. Smith has earned praise for her work with the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute and groups addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis, and she is by all accounts a committed community activist. She should stay one--or run for the Board of Aldermen--instead of running against a proven progressive.

Board of Aldermen
Talk about your win-win situations. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Carrboro voters could walk into the ballot box blindfolded, and still wind up picking a stable of worthwhile leaders. Six candidates are running for three seats, and every one of them boasts a long record of community and public service. To varying degrees, they're all pledging fealty to the planning principles that have taken the town where it is today: open space protection, smart-growth development, and promotion of diversity, the arts and small business.

While all of the candidates have their attributes, one presents voters with a unique opportunity: They can elect North Carolina's first Latino municipal official, and launch the political career of one of the Triangle's most committed and accomplished community organizers. John Herrera's campaign has generated much enthusiasm among area progressives--and with good reason. A Costa Rica native who has lived in the Triangle since 1992, Herrera has won acclaim for helping the Latino population make strides in the work force and gain better access to health care, housing and economic security. He's done some of his most significant work at the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, where he's director of Latino programs. He also founded Chapel Hill's annual Fiesta del Pueblo, the state's largest celebration of Latino culture.

In last year's census, 12 percent of Carrboro residents identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino; that's a population that merits some representation in town government. Herrera can provide that, and much more: He can bring the skills and insights he's gained doing statewide advocacy to all of Carrboro's citizens. In his campaign, he's emphasized the importance of maintaining the town's environmental focus, the need for more and better low-income housing, and proposals to bolster Carrboro's standing as a center for diversity, culture and small-scale commerce.

Incumbent Diana McDuffee, who was appointed to the board in 1995 and elected in 1997, is another clear choice. McDuffee, who works as director of the North Carolina Area Health Education Center, has long been a principled progressive. While in office, she has gained an ever stronger command of the issues and become an effective advocate for public transportation, town parks, libraries and affordable housing.

For the third spot on the board, voters face a daunting choice. The other incumbents, Jacquelyn Gist and Allen Spalt, have served the town well. Gist, who has served since 1990, speaks up on crucial issues and then carries through with concrete solutions. Spalt, who directs the Agricultural Resources Center, an environmental public interest organization, has been a key player in crafting Carrboro's environmental approach since being elected in 1997. There's simply no good reason to vote against either Gist or Spalt--except for the fact that there are only three open spots on the board. We leave that hard choice to voters.

Another candidate, Jim Porto, a former mayor of Carrboro, is talking the talk when it comes to tailoring growth to community interests. But local activists don't buy it, given Porto's previous record of backing controversial development proposals. Another candidate, Stephanie Padilla, has floated some good ideas about making town government more accessible, but her record of public service isn't as extensive as the other candidates.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, acknowledged as one of the best in the state, is facing pressures that threaten its ability to deliver high-quality education for all of its students. The student population has surged beyond projections, crowding some classrooms. New school funding from Orange County bonds--if voters approve this year's school bond issue--will help alleviate the problem. But the system will still need the best leadership it can muster to handle the years of growth ahead.

Five candidates are running for three seats on the board and two incumbents, Nicholas Didow and Valerie Foushee, are a winning team. As chair and vice-chair of the board, respectively, they have steered system schools through some difficult conflicts over policy and resources. Both have taken admirable stands; for example, Didow and Foushee were among the board members who supported enforcing the schools' nondiscrimination policy by no longer hosting free meetings of the Boy Scouts, which exclude homosexuals as a matter of policy.

Didow has pushed hard for more and better school nurses and other vital support staff. He has been an excellent advocate for the system in dealings with the state legislature and the county. Foushee has been a leading backer of programs to address the achievement gap between white and non-white students, and has done a good job of keeping the spotlight on students underserved by the system.

Running for the first time is Lisa Stuckey, who has earned accolades for her volunteer school work during the last decade. She's served as PTA president at Seawell Elementary School and McDougle Middle School, and as president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council. Stuckey is just the sort of thoughtful, progressive and pragmatic activist the board needs right now.

Two other challengers, Chon Shoaf and Joel Dunn, have invested time and energy contributing to the school system and expanding opportunities for young people. But their track records don't compare to the other candidates.

Hillsborough
The future of historic Hillsborough grows ever more doubtful. Small businesses are not faring well. Big-box development proposals are mounting. And water and sewer rates continue to rise due to years of mismanagement and bad planning by town leaders. The town continues to grapple with questions of how to develop, and the choice is relatively stark: Does Hillsborough want to be like cozy, charming Carrboro, or sprawling, corporate Cary?

Mayor
The mayor of Hillsborough doesn't get to vote in town business, but the person in that office need not be merely a figurehead--he or she can play a key role as an agenda-setter. In his previous terms, longtime incumbent Horace Johnson has not had much success in setting a positive agenda. Under his watch, small-town commerce has crumbled and water rates have skyrocketed. Johnson's ineffectiveness has long been a big concern. But recently, he's shown some new insight into what's at stake for the town.

This summer, Johnson opposed the controversial Hampton Pointe development plan, which would have brought more and bigger stores to the edge of town, further eroding the chances that small, community-centered businesses can sustain the local economy.

Johnson is no visionary, and he's been rightly criticized for his largely reactive approach to growth since he first won office in 1990. But the Hampton Pointe issue shows he may be willing to set more limits in the future. In the absence of better choices on the ballot, Johnson's small steps toward better leadership are enough to win him a qualified nod.

When it comes to "smart growth," local progressives agree that Johnson is likely to be more persuadable and effective than either of his opponents--both of whom supported Hampton Pointe. Scott Neal, an enterprising young writer and former business owner, has done admirable work for the Citizens' Water Advisory Task Force, exploring ways to get rates down. But he's not offering an effective approach to growth, and neither is the other challenger, Joe Phelps, a real estate developer with little expertise in town government.

Town Board
This year, four candidates are vying for two open seats on the Town Board. Of those, Frances Dancy, an incumbent who's served one term, has made the best choices on key development issues. An advocate for sensible growth, she seems to have a clear grip on the costs to the community of big-box commercial development. She came out against Hampton Pointe early in the debate, and quite sensibly stayed there.

Michael Gering, a challenger, has staked out similarly enlightened positions on managing growth. He's against the Hampton Pointe approach, suggesting instead that the town needs to buoy its small businesses. An engineer for IBM , Gering has for years been involved in town preservation activities. With Gering joining Dancy on the board, the town's leaders will have a better shot at resurrecting the local economy while at the same time preserving Hillsborough's historic charms.

Brian Lowen, the other incumbent, wound up siding with the developers on Hampton Pointe, arguing that such giant projects will help rescue the town from its financial woes. Better ideas could guide Hillsborough's future. Kenneth Potts, the other challenger, has run a low-profile campaign. In fact, most news reports about him have focused on an altercation he was involved in which featured an exchange of gunfire.

Pittsboro
It's been said that quiet elections are the rule in Pittsboro and candidates traditionally rely on name recognition and old-style retail politics to win over the few people who bother to vote in municipal elections. Around here, it's the county commissioners who take up the pressing issues of sprawl, a sheriff's department under fire, farmland and watershed protection, public health, taxes and underfunded schools--not the town board in Pittsboro.

But there are issues of concern. The town is living under a building moratorium imposed after the state declared that Pittsboro's sewage treatment plant was sickening Robeson Creek. Meanwhile, the county is busily steering growth toward Siler City and the northern end of the county, leaving Pittsboro to fend for itself in increasing isolation. While the county helps Siler City build a high-tech industrial park to attract quality jobs, Pittsboro's growth industry is its eleven antiques stores. As the rest of the Triangle struggles to define "smart growth," Pittsboro faces the prospect of no growth at all.

Board of Commissioners
"If you don't grow, you'll die. But that doesn't mean you have to change what you love about your town." So says Charles Devinney, who gets our recommendation, along with Christopher Walker, for two open seats on the town board.

Devinney is the most experienced candidate in the field, having served as the town's mayor since 1989. His intimate knowledge of the town's recent history, and his familiarity with leaders at the county and state levels, are his greatest assets. By no means a universally popular figure, he is nonetheless the candidate most familiar with the town's sewage and growth problems. He also says the right things about making growth conform to the town's plans, not those of developers, and about ensuring that rising property values don't force out longtime residents with modest incomes.

Walker has been out campaigning and doing his homework. The young bank executive decries "the total lack of communication" between the town and the county on sewage issues, and says he would like to see Pittsboro's government become more open and less hidebound. He's a "slow growth" advocate who believes the town must nonetheless increase its water capacity to accommodate deliberate growth--particularly businesses with high technology jobs. Best of all, he is an energetic, well-informed candidate from outside the political establishment.

Of the two other candidates, Brett Glosson is a lifelong resident and a colorful, perceptive candidate with an obvious love of his hometown. He isn't, however, very familiar with the details of the problems facing Pittsboro--something he readily admits. Burnice Griffin Jr. is the lone incumbent in the race. The son of the town's longtime fire chief, Griffin was appointed to a vacant seat on the board last fall. He has had little to say as a board member, and he has done little. He also avoided all requests for an interview.

Orange County Bonds
On Nov. 6, citizens will decide on five bond issues totaling $75 million in new spending for schools, parks and social services. They're all sound investments and The Independent urges a Yes vote on all five.

Here's how the money will be spent: $47 million for school construction; $20 million for open space preservation and parks and recreation; $4 million for senior centers; and $4 million for affordable housing. The school bond will fund the construction of a new county middle school and two new elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District, as well as renovations at several existing schools.

The education bonds constitute nearly two-thirds of the total spending, but the smaller items are just as crucial. Orange County voters have, in the past, exhibited an interest in maintaining the natural enclaves that will be protected with the parks provision. The affordable housing funds will help keep the county livable for younger residents, and the senior center funds will do the same thing for older folks. Together, the five bonds will help boost the quality of life in the entire county. EndBlock

  • The Independent's picks for Orange and Chatham counties.

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