May Becker lives in Chapel Hill part of the year, serving as co-chairwoman of the Orange-Chatham Group of the Sierra Club, and spends the rest of her time in Tampa, Fla., where she is part of a family business, holds rental property and is registered to vote.
While it's not unusual that her dual residency led Orange County staff to question if she was qualified to volunteer on the county's planning board, it is startling that the queries came a year and a half into her term, when Becker found herself on the dissenting side of a controversial vote.
The issue is complicated because the county lacks residency guidelines for serving on advisory boards, but in light of this case, county commissioners are considering establishing clear rules.
In January, Becker, then a planning board member, raised concerns about proposed stream buffer rules and asked for more time to consider the draft comprehensive zoning ordinance. It was then that county planning department staff noticed the Florida license plate on her Honda.
Two weeks later, Becker began receiving emails and phone calls from Orange County Attorney John Roberts questioning her residency status. He informed her that the Board of County Commissioners would ask for her resignation if she did not register her car in North Carolina, correspondence shows.
After discussing the matter with the N.C. Department of Transportation, which she says assured her that citizens can hold out-of-state license plates and still work in North Carolina, Becker thought the issue was settled.
But at a February meeting, she declined to support the 784-page updated set of zoning ordinances that govern the county. Meanwhile, County Manager Frank Clifton wanted to know if she had paid local property taxes on her vehicle, if she qualified for the homestead exemption she claimed in Florida and why she had a Florida and not a North Carolina driver's license.
He wrote an email stating that he was not concerned with her position on the board. Rather, he wanted to make sure she was following North Carolina property tax law.
"I do not personally care whether or not you are a resident," Clifton wrote. "I am concerned over the equity, fairness and enforcement of County property tax policies."
When her planning board term expired at the end of March, the Board of County Commissioners met in a closed session, which is standard for these types of deliberations, and declined her request to be reappointed.
"You give up your time to volunteer in a community and then people come back at you with all these things that are irrelevant," Becker says."It discourages people from doing exactly what I think people should do, and that's get involved in the community."
The ambiguity of Becker's eligibility stems from the fact that there is no formal, accepted definition of an Orange County resident. Volunteer applicants fill out a straightforward, one-page application to serve on any of the county's 49 boards. Currently, citizens aren't required to vote in Orange County to serve on volunteer boards. Commissioners are re-examining the qualifications for these appointments, Clifton says.
The residency investigation and Becker's environmental views are not linked, Clifton says. "I didn't hear anybody on the county commission discuss her positions or her stances on the planning board regarding her ability to serve. It had more to do with whether or not she was or wasn't a resident of Orange County."
County Commissioner Earl McKee, who served on the planning board with Becker until his election last November, declined to comment. Calls to Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier were not returned. Commissioner Alice Gordon did not answer her phone.
Becker moved to Chapel Hill in 2001 to attend graduate school at UNC. She says she applied to the planning board and the Commission for the Environment after Gordon approached her at a local environmental policy event that Becker had organized.
Becker is familiar with county issues and has real estate and environmental expertise. Becker holds a doctorate in marine sciences from UNC and a master's in geology from the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Becker says she was interested in contributing to "conscious planning" that would protect water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through better transportation systems.
In 2009, after filling out the brief form noting her qualifications and her Chapel Hill address, Becker was appointed by county commissioners to an at-large seat on the planning board. In 2010, they appointed her to the Commission for the Environment.
She says she doesn't remember why she left blank the portion asking "Year of OC Residence," but adds that no one challenged it during the process.
Becker joined the planning board amid a tense debate on a new Unified Development Ordinance, which consolidates six zoning and land use rules governing tree protection, parking and stream buffers, among other regulations, into one document.
Becker felt the debate was being rushed. "They didn't think that I was being a rubber-stamper," Becker says. "I don't sit on the board to sit there and rubber-stamp things; that's not what democracy is about. It's not what builds a healthy community."
Minutes from the meetings show that Becker focused on details. While other members were ready to pass the UDO and home in on specifics at future meetings, Becker insisted on examining all possible impacts.
For instance, she questioned exemptions granted for subdivisions and the meaning of the term "permitted by right," and said the proposal needed more time for review.
At a December meeting, she asked, "What about the other issues that we didn't specifically look at? It's the law even though we never looked at them," according to the approved minutes.
The county commissioners passed the UDO in April, eight months after the first draft was released.
Planning Board Vice Chairman Larry Wright serve alongside Becker and says he enjoyed working with her. But he understands why the county commissioners chose not to reappoint her. "She was a very good member of the planning board," says Wright, who lives in Cedar Grove. "She had a lot of skills. If you go through the minutes of our meetings, there are many times when I say, 'I would hate to pay, among others on the board, May Becker's billable hours."
However, Wright says, questions about her residency and eligibility meant the county could not reappoint her. He speculated that there could be implications for the county if those who disagreed with the board's decisions discovered and objected to her part-time residency.
She still serves on the Commission for the Environment. Her term expires Dec. 31.
Becker says her decision to vote in Florida is personal and that it's not unusual to reside in two locations. Volunteer boards should cast a wide net for the most knowledgeable and committed members who care about the community, not restrict themselves, she says.
"If you bring that type of attention to other board members, to the county commission and then you are silenced for that, you get this type of harassment. You get what I consider to be inappropriate action on government, that has to be spoken about," she says. "In my opinion, it has to stop."
Additional research by intern Jason Y. Lee.
Corrections (Aug. 1, 2011): May Becker is co-chairwoman of the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club, not chairwoman; also, she does not run a family rental property business but rather is part of a family business and holds rental property in Tampa.