From left: Kleinschmidt, Greene, Harrison, Swinton, and Ryan; Photo by Rachel Nash

CHAPEL HILL – Election season is here, and the race is on for the ten candidates competing for four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinshmidt, who is running unchallenged for re-election, said he hoped to have council members who would embrace the growth and change happening in Downtown Chapel Hill.

“We have a mission as a community to move ourselves forward. Change will happen,” Kleinschmidt said. “We just want to make sure that it is what we want it to be and not just let it happen to us.”

Kleinshmidt shared those thoughts at the Friends of Downtown Chapel Hill Candidate Forum Thursday.

With incumbents Gene Pease and Laurin Eastholm choosing not to run for re-election, there will be at least two new faces on the council this coming November.

The incumbents, Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison and Sally Greene, are expected to retain their seats. Challengers include George Cianciolo, Loren Hintz, Gary Kahn, Paul Neebe, Maria Palmer, Amy Ryan, and D.C. Swinton. Absent from the forum was political strategist and professor Jonathan Riehl.

Those who emerge victorious will have to tackle “change” and the many issues facing the Town related to a staggering growth rate. Orange County’s population in 2012 was just shy of 138,000, up 22,000 from the turn of the century. By 2025, Orange County is projected to add another 30,000 residents, for a total population of more than 166,000, according to data gathered by the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce.

And with growth come problems, such as wealth disparity and the diminishing option of affordable housing

“The fact of the matter is that Chapel Hill will never be more affordable unless we provide more supply [of housing]. It is a case of supply and demand. As long as the demand is high, and the supply is low, housing will continue to be at a high cost,” said Cianciolo, who served as Co-Chair of the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan Committee.

Neebe, a real estate broker and classical musician, championed growth and business, advocating for greater commercial development.

“Chapel Hill already has a shortage of affordable housing. One solution to this is to reduce taxes is by increasing commercial development,” Neebe said. “Whether we like it or not, Chapel Hill is going grow. The key is allowing it to grow without reducing our quality of life and I think this is possible with careful planning.”

Greene, who is a member of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, said that as part of the group’s work this past year, they found permanent housing for seven chronically homeless people.

“For tenants of public housing, it needs to be clearer what their realistic steps are to get out of public housing and to get to the next level of what they can afford in the community,” Greene said.

Harrison, who is seeking his fourth term, said that in the beginning of his time on the Town Council, there were reservations about growth in Downtown. Now, he said he embraced initiatives like Chapel Hill 20/20 Plan and Rosemary Imagined

“We let that horse out of the barn, and I really don’t mind it. I think we could have refined some of it, but we have accepted that Downtown is as good of a place for density as anywhere,” Harrison said.

Ryan, a former planning board member and current Co-Chair of the Central West Steering Committee, advocated for greater neighborhood input throughout the entire development process.

“I’m convinced that this vision of a much denser, much more commercial Chapel Hill is not shared by most community members, and I’m concerned that the new rules could silence voices in  development decisions,” Ryan said. She added “We shouldn’t favor economic expansion over respect for existing businesses and neighborhoods and a healthy environment

Kahn, a regular attendee of council meetings as an observer, said that if development happens, he thought it should be consistent.

“We need that connectivity. That’s basically the thing that is going on, the whole issue right now,” Kahn said . “It is very important that if one side of the street is a certain way, the other side of the street should be symmetrical with what is on the other side.”

Palmer, an educator and pastor, said that she supported development, but in the wake of this summer’s mass flooding, the Town should examine carefully where it builds.

“Some people have brought up the issue that we are building in places where we shouldn’t be building. Unfortunately for some areas it is too late,” Palmer said. “What we need is the best engineering that you can get. In our town, I’m sure we have the expertise to tackle any problem that comes our way.”

Swinton, who at 25 is the youngest candidate for council, pointed out that economic growth in Downtown will likely help the homeless problem in Chapel Hill.

“There still is this perception that homeless people are bad people, and when you have any sort of issue of homeless in the first place, it is because of the lack of economic opportunity for those persons,” Swinton said. “Even if it is just a minimum-waged job, we don’t have enough of them.”

Swinton also said that he hoped to use his background in violence prevention to reduce incidents of personal crime on Franklin Street and sexual assault on UNC’s campus.

Hintz, a former teacher and past Chair of the Transportation Board, explained his thoughts on the state of homelessness in Downtown.

“I support the idea of donating to organizations rather than individuals. I also think we need to sensitive of the entire economic situation in the state and the country. Finally, I think we would have better success of educating ourselves and the tourists, trying to teach visitors that you don’t have to be afraid of homeless people. You don’t have to be afraid of panhandlers.” Hintz said.