Elections » Candidate Questionnaires

Ed Harrison

Candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Ed Harrison

Full legal name, if different: Edward C. Harrison

Date of birth: October 15, 1950

Occupation & employer: Self-employed conservation biologist and educator; part-time temporary Town of Chapel Hill employee, as Council Member (elected Mayor Pro Tem in 2011 by colleagues)

Campaign website: www.edharrison.net

Email: ed.harrison@mindspring.com


1. Why are you running for office and what are your top priorities, if elected? Please include information on past public service, posts held, volunteer work completed and other examples of your leadership.

I'm running for re-election to continue the work I've done for Chapel Hill and in some cases, for the region as well in excellent constituent service, alternative transportation planning and development, environmental protection initiatives, and progressive land use approaches. That's not all I've worked on, but it mirrors the approach I've taken as an environmental management professional for 37 years, where I have always considered the overall picture but specialized in particular areas. I have a great deal of institutional memory, a through knowledge of municipal functions (and those of other governments), and know hundreds of folks from whom to seek guidance if I need it. I also hope to continue to be the member of Town Council most involved with the General Assembly on a regular, if not daily, basis unpleasant as that's been lately on a wide range of issues affecting local governments, alternative transportation and environmental protection.

Some specific priorities within the issue areas are:

Transportation: Ensure that the case keeps being made and explained for a light rail system connecting UNC and the town to points east, all the way to East Durham; work on kick-starting the land use plans for areas around future stations, starting with the I-40/US 15-501/(soon to be former) Blue Cross site; be part of negotiating a Development Agreement for redeveloping Glen Lennox, a complicated process on which I've been the leading Council Member for almost six years; get the oncoming Bike Plan adopted and implemented; work on putting together a future bond issue to fund sidewalks, bike facilities, and greenway trails in particular (there are other needs, and our last bond issue was a decade ago).

Environmental protection: As the Council member who in summer 2012 (a) first discerned a staff-generated attempt to weaken our stream buffers, (b) told the Town Manager to slow it way, way, down, and (c) brought it to the public's attention simplify our stream buffer ordinance but don't allow unwarranted lessening of protections; adopt and implement the Town's stormwater management plan, under development for half a decade; focus on some priority geographical areas with significant flooding issues; work on protecting the last few high-quality open spaces in the Town's jurisdiction (not in public/UNC ownership, although the latter may need additional protection as possible); across the board, introduce where warranted useful environmental planning approaches being used elsewhere in the region, state and nation.

Progressive land use approaches: Determine the best locations and method to implement the "form based code" approach to development, which in Chapel Hill would entail rezoning certain land tracts to new "walkable" zones with certain land uses, and after that having a "by right" process focused on development forms, which should allow permitting to happen much more quickly than under the current Special Use Permit process. Many are concerned, including me, about the loss of public review of appearance, environmental criteria, and the like. I want to work on the best solution that lets us shorten the time that especially needed land uses affordable housing in particular have to spend in the permitting process. Included in my work on this is research in the form of interviewing long-time contacts in Durham citizens, design professionals, and planners about that city's experience with this code in the Ninth Street District. It needs work there, and we can learn from their problems.

In every area I will continue, as I've done for twelve years, to keep constituents informed of "breaking news", upcoming meetings, important documents, and the like.

My past public service, posts held, volunteer work completed and other examples of leadership:

Going back a quarter of a century, I've been alerting my fellow citizens to the importance of breaking issues, informing a wide range of people with the media available at the time, I led the NC Sierra Club's movement into transportation activism, into increasing sensitivity to land use issues, and into lobbying for statewide wetland protection. The Club gave me two statewide Distinguished Service Awards as one result; NC's environment benefited, as another. After being elected a Soil and Water District Supervisor for Durham County, as the first environmental professional in the position in anyone's memory, I led the District into a contemporary and progressive agenda, involving urban constituents and academics in ways seldom seen before in a NC district.

I've been active for over 20 years as an unpaid "technical consultant" to the efforts of the New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, the lead group for open space protection in that critical watershed.

In terms of non-profit organizations, I've focused my statewide efforts on helping to found and develop NC's first advocacy group for bicyclists and walkers, the Active Transportation Alliance (www.http://ncactive.org), and started the first lobbying efforts ever on behalf of bicycle "drivers."

As a CH Council Member, I've led effectively on highlighting some of the huge transportation challenges facing CH and the region, via petitions to my colleagues asking them to commit Council and staff time to participating in major efforts at re-planning our systems. Even before getting on Council, I spearheaded the creation of the largest freestanding on-road bike/ped project in the Triangle on Old Durham-Chapel Hill Road connecting major retail areas in Chapel Hill to New Hope Creek and beyond, picking up several miles of residences on the way. I've persisted for over 20 years to get that done.

Four years ago, I was appointed to the Triangle Transit Board of Trustees, and am now Vice-Chair. For part of that time I chaired the Planning and Legislative Committee, where I led the effort to refine TTA's light rail plan for Chapel Hill to reduce its impact drastically on state-significant natural area and built-out neighborhoods already challenged by existing conditions. I've gained much knowledge about both current and future regional transit operations and plans, and in my leadership positions on that board, intend to work to get Chapel Hill a light rail system.

One aspect of leadership, especially in as "small-d" democratic a place as CH, is making government work for the people. I am proudest of my assertively taking on individual complaints and concerns --in many cases, being the only council member to contact a citizen or respond -- and bringing our town's resources to bear on issues, no matter how trivial they might seem to colleagues, staff or the media.

In an area of activity which falls between the cracks in media coverage, I've organized neighborhoods along the Durham-Chapel Hill boundary to deal with troubling development proposals for all three jurisdictions (incl. Durham Co). I've used long-standing political contacts with my leadership counterparts at the highest levels in Durham City and County to re-shape or reduce the impact of growth here at the edge of the municipalities, and have organized folks in three jurisdictions to work with Durham leaders on specific development issues.

I've attached a resume of my current Council-related appointments to boards, commissions and committees locally and across the region. I've also attached a document detailing my record of service to advocacy organizations, going back three decades.

2. If you are not currently serving on the Town Council, what will you bring to the body that it now lacks? If you are an incumbent, what perspective have you brought that the town still needs?

As an incumbent, I continue to bring the perspective that the Indy cited four years ago, a great deal of interest and expertise in transportation, especially alternatives to "business as usual" roads. The perspective is for all modes walking, bicycling, bus transit, future rail transit, and "context-sensitive" roads (that are right for the community). In the case of walking and bicycling, I literally "walk the walk" (and "ride the ride," to coin a term), as I've done wherever I've lived for some 55 years. This gives me a great feel for the challenges that face folks who get around without cars, and means that I'm constantly thinking about and asking about solutions to problems. Perspective on using Chapel Hill and Triangle Transit comes to me from my wife Pat, a retired systems engineer (and now schoolteacher) who tells me what's it like riding the bus and who's doing it. I'm the only Council Member or candidate who is actively explaining why Chapel Hill needs high-capacity transit that is, rail and rapid bus (both in their own rights of way), and I'll do for anyone, anytime.

As a long-time environmental professional, specializing in studying and teaching the plant ecology of our Piedmont landscape, I bring a field biologist's perspective and expertise to Council discussions of environmental protection something that is clearly a priority for Chapel Hill's population.

3. In the last four years, what do you feel are the three best accomplishments of Chapel Hill Town Government, and why? Conversely, what are three things you would have done differently?

Because I don't spend my Council terms constantly campaigning, I don't consciously track this sort of thing, and certainly not by a specific number of items. As well, any accomplishments or potential failures of Town government involve the Manager and staff in some way. Finally, it often takes more than four years sometimes a lot more to achieve anything meaningful in local government.

Having said that, some items stand out.

• Having our Town Manager and economic development officer work to develop Chapel Hill's first business incentive something we'd never done in the right place, the West End of downtown, and (in my case) expressing confidence that the Manager could make it work;

• Making significant progress in realizing our vision of downtown as a place where people live all year, where small 21st century entrepreneurs can set up shop (e.g. LaUNCh, on Rosemary Street), and where we can keep developing our vision (Rosemary Imagined).

• Restraining our Town property tax more than any other surrounding municipality (still lower than that of Carrboro, Durham or Hillsborough) while maintaining important services such as our contribution to NC's second busiest transit system. When we raised our transit tax in 2013, it was still lower than it had been the last time we raised it seven years earlier.

The one notable negative: the Yates Building takeover crisis, which, by the time it finally got to the Council, couldn't be redeemed in any meaningful way.

4. Indy Week's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

We help to build a just community where we are each most able to help.Because of my lifetime experience of being involuntarily "car free" -- from age 6 to age 26 -- I'm especially aware of the day to day/on the ground issues of people who have to get around without the "freedom" of the automobile. For years, going to back to my being a charter member of the City of Durham's first "urban trails commission" in 1983, I've spoken out for those who don't have cars to travel.

At the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Transportation Advisory Committee, both before and after I served there as an elected official, I've worked to create and foster projects with the goal of making both my town and surrounding counties accessible without cars, and connected without cars. My original involvement in the issue came from my work as an environmental planner and educator, in which trail systems were the way to get outdoors and away from urban life. It's evolved to where I'm a constant part of efforts to keep transit running, to fund greenways, to get sidewalks into neighborhoods, and (as an advocate for a non-profit) to get bicycle facilities and safe riding into all parts of NC society.

On issues in which I am personally less invested -- although I'm interested in plenty of things -- I've backed the efforts of my colleagues and my constituents on affordable housing and on racial justice (which we shouldn't need to work for anymore!).

5. How do you define yourself politically (ie) conservative, moderate, liberal,third party, hybrid etc) and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

It's been my impression for many years that the first three definitions don't apply well to Chapel Hill politics. So far this campaign season, no candidate has referred to the sitting Council as "too progressive," but it often happens. I'm not sure what "hybrid" means. I've never been anything but a registered Democrat (41 years), and am now on the State Executive Committee of the NC party. Since local races are non-partisan, party labels are relatively unimportant; one's personal strengths and interests are more important. I've consistently demonstrated that I'm very interested in and care about the public process and in making Town Hall accessible to its citizens. During my decades as an activist and as a progressive elected official -- inspired at the start by your publication's founder, Steve Schewel, among others -- I've defined myself politically by working to increase and maximize the public's full participation in government, and to maximize cooperation among stakeholders on a wide range of issues.

In terms of a specific major issue area and its relationship to my political philosophy my choice is transportation. I try to be "at the table" in the right places to advocate on behalf of people who can't get around using the almighty automobile. Few citizens and most Council members understand the regional transportation planning process and its implications for our local quality of life. And there's never, ever, enough money for what any of us want, especially if it isn't for motorists. For almost twelve years, I've been a CH representative at the table at monthly meetings of the regional transportation organizations. This is the table where funding and priorities are decided -- who gets money for what road or bike lane. You can't take a university course to learn how this process works; you have to be there in the room, you have to believe sincerely in full collaboration with the officials of other jurisdictions whose interests are not always yours, and you have to stay in touch with your constituents and colleagues to know what their best interests are.

Starting six years ago, I became a member of the Public Transit Partners Committee, composed of Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and UNC decision-makers, and have practiced those beliefs there as well in particular successfully fighting a consulting firm's plan to remove bus service from low-income communities (there are some in CH) and from some of our less-upscale retail centers.

6. Chapel Hill has a reputation as a town that is anti-business. Is that fair or not? What would you do to change that reputation, if at all?

The term "business" covers a lot of territory. When I once asked a UNC trustee about this reputation, he replied that he absolutely loved opening a business in Chapel Hill, because it always did well. However, at the staff level and at the Council level, we've had a learning curve in recent years about how obscure regulations and administrative policies can make progress difficult for business, especially small business. So think it's a fair characterization in a number of areas, and I welcome working to change that. Along with colleagues on the Council's Economic Development Committee, I started that work with multiple "listening sessions" in my previous term. We heard a lot of gripes and a lot of good ideas. Economic Development Director Dwight Bassett, with us for most of the time for six years, has worked to be the point person for improvement efforts. I think he needs to cede some of his efforts regarding rezonings (see material re form based code in (1)) to staff land use planners, but he deserves careful encouragement from Council members. We also need to carry out our own facilitation of doing business in Chapel Hill by always having an available ear to the full set of folks trying to do it.

7. What is your view on the town's recent moves to support high-density, mixed-use developments in downtown Chapel Hill? What can be done to revitalize and support downtown?

These "recent moves" are in part the result of a Council-driven planning process that began 11 years ago, as the Downtown Economic Development Initiative. The most direct and "concrete" result of that process is 140 West, the vertical-mixed-use project built by private developers on Town property. What is accomplished by this and the four other sizable projects supported by the Council while I've been a member, is to move us to having a 52-week, 24-hour downtown (as I told Billy Ball of the Indy when interviewed about Shortbread Lofts, which passed by a 9-0 vote). Creating that sort of downtown is above all, business-friendly, because it means that retail doesn't have to depend on a student-dominated market (especially walk-ins from dorms). The owners of closed businesses cited by the Indy in its September 4 article on "Franklin Street" (only one street) Pepper's Pizza and Schoolkids Records both pointed to the difficulty of depending on the business of nearby undergrads; Peppers was done in, the owner told local and national media, by on-campus eateries; Schoolkids could no longer expect purchases by dorm residents who had never and would never buy CDs.

A year-round, day-long downtown also puts more "eyes on the street," adding to the feel and the reality of safety. When anyone talks about the need to "revitalize" downtown, I believe it needs to be re-stated as making downtown a place where the experience for the visitor and for those visited (retail merchants in particular) is a dependably positive experience. I don't see how the Council can possibly control, let alone affect, the rampant growth of UNC-facilitated on-campus retail and restaurants. But we can affect the on-the-street experience of all those we host. We can work, as I have since I started on Council, on treating downtown parking as a resource, something that enables access, and not a revenue source from enforcement. Because of the huge parking demand created by UNC's no-available-parking approach, Chapel Hill has probably the largest challenge of any NC downtown. I think we can continue to make progress on that, and work for that, including for non-car parking.

8. What are your thoughts on the town's panhandling ordinance and its enforcement by Chapel Hill police?

This ordinance is intended to regulate "aggressive" panhandling, not all panhandling but instead the activity that makes people feel intimidated as they walk around Chapel Hill's downtown. The 2003 Council voted unanimously to ban panhandling at road intersections, and that issue has never been brought up again. The only place for which there's discussion or controversy is downtown, in terms of street people who may or may not be panhandling. When I've asked CH police officers about its enforcement, the most common reply is that in many circumstances (especially unpleasant weather) the accused citizen "has nothing to lose" by receiving enforcement and a brief jail stay. My strong impression is that officers would prefer, and that it would be more effective, to pursue non-enforcement activities in regard to what the ordinance calls "(f)orcing oneself upon the company of another person," including actions that "(i)ntimidate another person." It's been reported to me by sources I trust that there's been some progress, albeit slow, in getting those street people who are truly homeless into housing and into rehabilitory programs.

9. What do you think of the town's comprehensive plan, Chapel Hill 2020? What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? As a council member, how would you go about implementing the plan?

I'm glad the Council decided to proceed with the plan, glad that I participated in many of the activities in the planning process, and glad we adopted when we did.

Strengths, in brief: It gives a range of visions with core goals, many associated principles, and by far the most detailed proposal for implementation of the plan to achieve those goals that I've ever seen in a Chapel Hill comprehensive plan (1986, 2000); it has a lot of data associated with it, some of which had never before been developed in a finished way (I had my own versions for years); it selected six "focus areas" for the community to work together on future growth planning.

Weaknesses: It still has potential conflicts, which in my 12 years of Council experience, almost always arise in considering development applications. For the former plan, the most extraordinary example was Aydan Court, a dense proposal in a well-known natural area which I fought using comprehensive plan principles and environmental data and ultimately convinced my colleagues to defeat. I can't tell yet if the new plan would allow the Council to make clear from the start that such a project violated our community's principles. And those conflicts appear to be arising in both of the first two focus area planning efforts, "Central West" and "Obey Creek," which I've closely observed.

Some paths of implementation:

• Continue with the focus area process. The two that are ongoing have been challenging for all participants, including those of us sitting in and listening. I look forward to participating in the first process for the "North 15-501" area, which will include the county-line Gateway rail station area, the Blue Cross tract (to be vacated late 2014), the Old Durham-Chapel Hill Road corridor, and neighborhoods where I live and spend my time on foot and bike.

• Continue involvement with downtown visioning and planning, especially the Rosemary Imagined initiative.

• Get engaged and foster community engagement in efforts to revise the content of our large and complicated Land Use Management Ordinance, especially in regard to environmental protection.

• Get Chapel Hill's first true Bike Plan adopted and implemented, fitting it in with our land use planning and regulation.

10. Chapel Hill continues to struggle to offer affordable housing. As a council member, what would you do to push affordable housing in the town?

The report from our Affordable Rentals task force, to be officially released at the October 16 Council meeting, has a number of sound approaches to move us ahead on that part of housing affordability. With new single home construction having essentially vanished within Chapel Hill, seeking progress on affordable rentals looks very useful, along with somehow changing the development community's approach to house/lot size (much smaller!) so we can get some proposals for owner-occupied housing again. Out of all the task force strategies, many of which could apply to for-sale housing as well, the ones on which I'd most like to work involve the availability of land and land use regulation. Both are very important in a place with some of the highest land prices in NC, and where development processes tend to take a long time before actual Council approval. I'd like to work on identifying properties in public ownership Town, but also UNC lands if the university is amenable where relatively intense development of affordable housing could be feasible. The Council is now encouraging development by a non-profit (Raleigh's DHIC) on an unbuilt part of the Town Cemetery between US 15-501 and Legion Road. Our 2012-13 "Asset Study" examined all town properties, and that's just the first to get a proposal. I'd like to pursue developing a "land bank," especially in future rail station areas, where affordable housing could be encouraged by state law. I'm especially eager to work with existing neighborhoods to find out where and how they can happily accept the addition of affordable and workforce housing to where they live.

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