Karen Howard - Chatham County Commission | Candidate Questionnaires - Chatham County | Indy Week
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Karen Howard - Chatham County Commission 

Name as it appears on the ballot: Karen Howard

Facebook Page: Howard for Commissioner 2016

Phone number: (919)636-5799

Email: karen@howards-end.net

Years lived in the county: 9

1. What are the three most important issues facing Chatham County today? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues? 

The three most important issues facing Chatham County are 1) planning for growth and the resultant infrastructure demands, 2) ensuring that Chatham residents are prepared for the jobs coming into the region and 3) environmental preservation.

My top priorities in addressing them are as follows:

The Comprehensive Plan: The County is currently in the process of crafting a new Comprehensive Plan which will address many of the challenges that typically arise in the context of growth. It is imperative that we stick with our aggressive timeline to have the Comp Plan finalized ahead of this growth, as it promises to be an invaluable tool in dictating policies around land use, transportation, utilities, housing and recreation. As a collaborative effort, the Comprehensive Plan will have input from a full compliment of departments, committees, task forces and organizations that are directly involved with addressing specific needs so we can expect that amongst other things there will be provisions to help the county grapple with a multiplicity of issues from the siting and building of schools to the provision of affordable housing within standard new developments such as Chatham Park and affordable rentals where demand is demonstrated. The Comprehensive Plan will also be the guiding document for determining the expansion of water and sewerage services within predetermined areas, as well as the extension of transportation and utilities throughout the County. With a well-thought out plan for how we intend to grow, the County can bring certainty to the process of planning for critical infrastructure needs.

Investing in education from Pre-K through the community college system will be critical helping residents develop and maintain marketable skills that enable them to enter, re-enter and advance in a multiplicity of employment opportunities that are presently here as well as those poised to venture into the county. There is strong evidence that early education sets a child on a path of academic success that is often difficult, if not impossible, to recapture later in life. Investing early in our children’s education will open pathways for residents from across the county to be able to access job opportunities as they arise at either of the county’s two megasites, Chatham Park and all the other businesses that will be part of the impending growth in the region. In addition, creating opportunities for those who have been laid off or who do not have current marketable skills, will be a key tool for creating flexibility in our work force. The key in Chatham will be ensuring that these opportunities are available countywide to all residents. The county is currently working with the school district to identify land for future school sites and the Board of Commissioners recently approved the construction of a medical sciences building that will bring community college opportunities to Briar Chapel which helps feed what is quickly becoming a medical corridor between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro/Chatham Park. However, these kinds of opportunities are needed across the entire county and it is part of my goal to continue to work with the Board of Education, Central Carolina Community College and other relevant stakeholders to build a resilient, educated, highly skilled workforce in our county.

The Comprehensive Plan provides an opportunity for us to address environmental threats through policies that encourage growth and development along designated corridors in and around existing towns while preserving rural areas. The goal is ultimately to create smart communities with schools, jobs, transportation, walkable streets and green spaces that incorporate amenities for all. Zoning will play a critical role in our effort to prevent unchecked growth and incompatible land uses while simultaneously protecting environmentally sensitive areas and allowing for implementation of each community’s needs and objectives as identified during the Comprehensive Plan process. Provisions should include zoning updates, regulations around fracking and coal ash disposal, infrastructure budgeting, a school construction plan and an energy conservation plan.  I was proud to be part of the decision to create the county’s first Climate Change Advisory Committee which has been tasked with making recommendations to the Commissioners and others about the likely impacts of climate change and ways to adapt to and mitigate these impacts. Members of the Climate Change Advisory Committee are on the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee and have provided much needed information and advice to that group as we seek to incorporate forward thinking strategies to preserve the natural environment and limit our local carbon footprint. 

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a commissioner? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office. 

As an Attorney I developed the ability to advocate and negotiate for my position and to tackle difficult issues in a strategic manner and these skills have translated well into my service at the community and county level. Since arriving in Chatham County I have served on many local boards and committees including the Chatham County Board of Education, The Partnership for Children, the Chatham Arts Council and (currently) the Board of County Commissioners.  My advocacy at the Bar was excellent preparation for lobbying our representatives in Raleigh on issues regarding public education, the environment and local autonomy,  which is especially relevant in this election given our increasingly paternalistic legislature which has sought to overreach local authority on numerous issues. In addition, the work that I have done on local and regional boards has given me significant experience with the individuals, challenges, policies and practices that help guide the way on how issues that matter to us are addressed in the County and the State.

3. 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 progressive Democrat. I believe in the value and necessity of good governance and that leadership brings with it a significant degree of social responsibility. I believe that it is the duty of locally elected leaders to invest in the community for the benefit of all.

4. Countywide zoning has been a contentious issue in Chatham County over the last year. Please articulate your position on this topic, and your thoughts on the commission’s decision in August to adopt R-1 and R-5 zoning for previously un-zoned parts of the county.  

Chatham County is the second fastest growing county in the state, poised for a population increase of almost 50% over the 15 years from 2010-2025. This historic growth cannot be accommodated responsibly without direct influence by local leadership and county residents.

Prior to board action this summer, the absence of county-wide zoning made Chatham uniquely vulnerable in this increasingly high growth area of the state. With surrounding counties such as Wake and Orange having strong zoning regulations that restrict many heavy uses such as landfills, quarries and chemical plants and with our relative low taxes and affordable land, an un-zoned Chatham stood out as the potential recipient for every undesirable industry in the region. The long term effects of such unfettered development would have assured environmental and economic hardship for the county and its residents for generations to come. 

As part of the 3:2 vote in favor of countywide zoning, it was very important to me that we be proactive and protect Chatham County citizens from the very real risks, both environmental and economic, of having significant portions of the county remain un-zoned in the face of the impending growth and the inherent pressures of development. The result of our decision is that Chatham residents now have a tool to manage how their communities develop and what kinds of business and development activities are compatible with current needs and future interests and together with the Comp Plan we will be poised to respond to unscrupulous developers, undesirable businesses and environmentally irresponsible industries.

5. Chatham is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, with development pressure coming in from Durham, Orange, and Wake counties. What are some specific solutions you would offer as to how the county should manage this growth? 

Implementation of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan will be our most effective tool in determining how we manage growth and where we direct businesses, industry and residential development. To this end I am proud to have supported the development of the plan, which will provide a 25-year vision for the county. The Comprehensive Plan will help determine where schools and emergency services should be located, parks and green spaces, transit and transportation routes and particularly, water and wastewater. 

Providing water and wastewater in accordance with the patterns that emerge through the Comprehensive Plan will be critical in managing the projected historic growth of the county. Chatham has already initiated conversations with surrounding counties and municipalities about opportunities to collaborate on this infrastructure which will allow the county to determine how and where development occurs. My goal is to ensure that infrastructure is built parallel to desired patters of development and directs growth in a way that invigorates and sustains predetermined growth centers around the county, while protecting quality of life, rural character and the agricultural industry from potential negative impacts of growth. 

6. The Chatham Park development, expected to dramatically increase the population of Pittsboro and surrounding areas over the next decade, continues to be a source of excitement and tension for Chatham residents. How is this project coming along, in your view? 

The Chatham Park development is projected to take about 30 years to achieve full build-out, but the project is moving forward with several medical offices already in operation including a hospice center that opened in September. Plans are also underway for the start of the first phase of mixed-use development in the North Village. While there is still much to be determined, especially with regard to infrastructure that the county will be required to provide, we have begun early conversations around the siting of schools in particular, and more generally around the need for the development to be informed by and to inform many aspects of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Ultimately, the county will be required to provide many of the services required by residents therefore is continues to be essential that the developers be willing to work with our board and the Board of Education to ensure the best outcome for current residents. 

There continues to be considerable trepidation about the impact that the massive development will ultimately have on the county, and much of the concern can only be addressed by the Pittsboro Town Board of Commissioners and the Unified Development Ordinance which is currently being developed. I have been encouraged by recent efforts on the part of the developer to create citizen groups and to offer opportunities for elected officials, county staff and local boards and committees to participate in charettes whereby we hope to be able to give input on and better understand various aspects of the development. While I am excited about the opportunities that Chatham Park promises to bring to the county, as a County Commissioner it has been and will continue to be my responsibility to ensure that current residents are not displaced, disenfranchised or otherwise negatively impacted by the development. Our residents are my constituents. 

7. It’s been a year since Chatham commissioners issued a two-year halt on fracking in the county. Do you agree this was the correct decision, and what do you believe is the correct path to take moving forward into next year, when the ban will either be lifted or renewed? 

On August 17th of 2015, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners issued a moratorium against fracking which was intended to allow time for the Comprehensive Land Use Plan to be finalized and for the county to develop relevant regulations and a permitting process for hydraulic fracturing and similar explorations. I am still adamantly opposed to the manner in which the State of North Carolina has effectively tied the hands of local governments to self-determine whether or not to allow such activities within one’s borders and I will continue to advocate for county-level decision making on local matters.

Over the next year I expect to see ordinances and regulations specifically addressing oil and gas exploration activities developed by the county and incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan. If necessary, I am fully prepared to vote in favor of extending the moratorium in order to protect the atmosphere, our ground and surface water and our environmentally sensitive lands.

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