Party affiliation, if any: Democrat, but running in non-partisan election
Campaign website: www.jessicafortowncouncil.org
Occupation & employer: UNC-Greensboro, Senior Policy Research Analyst
Years lived in Chapel Hill: Five
1) Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes will you advocate if elected?
My family, like many others, chose to move to Chapel Hill because of its progressive culture, environmental stewardship and strong schools—values that have been part of Chapel Hill’s DNA for generations. I am running for town council because I feel that the current direction of Chapel Hill neither reflects these values, nor the will of its current residents.
The town council’s current direction prioritizes the development of luxury condominiums and apartments, a strategy that will inevitably raise property taxes and drive out working-class residents who no longer will be able to afford to live here. If our already affluent town becomes even more expensive, then more musicians, artists, teachers and others who have traditionally contributed to the diverse fabric of our community will be forced to move further out into the county or into neighboring towns. If elected, I would advocate for incentivizing development of affordable housing options to protect our community’s diversity and artistic tradition.
Recent decisions by the town council are also slowly eroding Chapel Hill’s beauty and tradition of environmental stewardship. Newer developments, such as Village Plaza apartments, take the form of unnecessarily massive high rises that are not human scale. These developments, in addition to being built in floodplains, sit too close to roadways and fail to take advantage of opportunities to add green spaces. Green spaces would not only add to our town’s aesthetic beauty, but allow storm water to be absorbed into the ground instead of running off onto concrete, introducing impurities into our drinking water. In addition to advocating for development that is human scale and includes more appropriate setbacks, I would support balancing the huge amounts of impervious surface present in the current plans for Obey Creek, Ephesus Fordham and other new developments with the creation of more publicly accessible green space.
The town council currently has only one member whose child attends Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and I believe that is one reason why our schools are no longer being prioritized. In addition to being a mother to a 2-year old who will be attending Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, I have spent my career as a K-12 education policy analyst. My personal investment as the mother of a future school-aged child—coupled with my expertise in education—will ensure that we protect our schools from overcrowding and sustain their excellence. Specifically, I would advocate not approving anymore residential development without first ensuring that the town council, school board members and county commissioners have a joint plan in place to accommodate the children who will occupy new developments.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.
Issue #1: Citizen input is not being applied to decision making. I firmly believe that we will make decisions that more accurately reflect our values and truly benefit the “collective good” if we can commit to fully mining the education, creativity and experiences of the residents of our town. If we fail to consider and apply the input of our citizens, we run the risk of developing into a town that does not reflect the values of its residents, but rather those who are solely in a position of influence. In addition, citizens will no longer feel compelled to engage with the council and feel increasingly divorced from the town. To that end, I plan to engage as many town staff members, advisory boards, concerned citizens, neighborhood associations, university experts and advocacy groups as possible—while working hard at integrating their feedback into final decisions. I will not vote in favor of projects that have not been presented before the community and will work hard to bridge the existing divide between what we say we value as a community, and the actual decisions we make as a town.
Issue #2: Environmental concerns caused by development. The current Ephesus-Fordham form based code (FBS) allows for development of impervious surfaces without the provision of adequate green space to protect our creeks and streams from flooding. As a result, storm water that flows off of these impervious surfaces gathers impurities and flows into our creeks and streams, eventually running into Jordan Lake. This is problematic because Jordan Lake is the current source of drinking water for so many in our area and will eventually be Chapel Hill’s source of water as well. In addition, many of the developments recently approved by the town council fail to meet LEED certification standards for energy efficiency. I believe it is imperative to make modifications to the Ephesus-Fordham FBC—and all future FBCs—to promote better water reclamation and storm water management as well as the addition of more green space. We must also ensure that all new construction meets the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Challenge to be carbon neutral in 15 years.
Issue #3: Traffic challenges caused by new development. Future large-scale development projects, such as Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek, will undoubtedly add to the traffic issues that are already starting to plague 15-501 and Estes Road during peak hours. However, the town could have mitigated some of these challenges by listening to and addressing the concerns brought up by advisory boards and residents about the walkability and connectivity of these new developments. In addition, the town’s current “focus zone” approach to evaluating developmental impacts fails to adequately consider the implications of new development on traffic patterns across the entire town. For example, traffic ramifications from the development in Obey Creek will surely be felt as far down 15-501 as Eastgate Plaza during peak hours, yet the current approach only looks at traffic challenges in and around Southern Village. If elected, I will work with town staff to produce a traffic study that shows how traffic stemming from all newly-approved development will impact the entire town. That way, we can determine, as a community, how to address and mitigate the negative impacts of traffic challenges in a comprehensive and strategic manner.
3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as mayor or as a member of the Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?
My professional experience has established me as an expert in K-12 education policy with a record of successfully bringing stakeholders to consensus under difficult—sometimes contentious—circumstances. I currently lead large-scale projects and supervise a team as a senior policy analyst at SERVE, an education policy center based at UNC-Greensboro. In this role, I have worked on evaluations for two major state-wide education programs on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction: Race to the Top and Read to Achieve. My skills at bringing people together were particularly evident on the Race to the Top evaluation, in which I applied my stakeholder engagement skills to facilitate better communication and collaboration between the project’s subcontractors while helping to successfully turn around a floundering project.
My educational background includes a Master’s in Public Policy (concentration in social policy) from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. I have advanced training in economics, statistics, program evaluation and budgeting—all of which are skills that are integral to evaluating and implementing policy. As part of the program’s core curriculum, I was trained in how to analyze policy options addressing a variety of issues, including traffic congestion and affordable housing, including their impacts on specific populations and stakeholder groups.
In addition to the above, I believe that my collaborative spirit and listening skills can restore the community’s trust in the town council’s ability to keep residents informed, listen to citizen input and act in our town’s best interests.
4) Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.
The single biggest thing the town council should have done differently this past year was integrate citizen and advisory board input into the development plans for Ephesus-Fordham.
Citizens expressed concerns about congested roads; gaps in pedestrian, bike and bus amenities; affordable housing; green spaces; building scale; flooding and neighborhood vibrancy—yet none of these issues were adequately addressed in the form based code for Ephesus-Fordham. Similarly, the town council moved forward with the Obey Creek project during the year prior without addressing the concerns put forth by the citizens who served on the Obey Creek Compass Committee. Because the town council is failing to take citizen recommendations seriously, Chapel Hill is starting to look different than a lot of its citizens had envisioned.
The town council’s greatest accomplishment this past year was providing free high-speed internet to residents of public housing. This program, which was brought about by AT&T’s work with the NC Next Generation Network, is a great example of the types of public/private partnerships we need to pursue across a variety of initiatives, not only to assist underserved populations, but to maximize our potential as a community.
5) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?
I identify myself as a progressive. I am a registered Democrat who is pro-choice and a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights. I do not support the death penalty. I believe in progressive taxation, a living wage for all workers and adequate funding and support for public education and the arts. I believe in economic development that benefits the entire community, rather than a select few. I do not believe in trickle-down economic theory, which presumes that creating more wealth and services for those who are already economically advantaged will result in greater opportunity for those who are not (e.g., that building more luxury housing will result in previously high-end apartments becoming affordable).
6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?
One of the reasons I love Chapel Hill is because it is a community that cares about finding ways to serve the traditionally underserved. We’ve done this through a variety of avenues, including our soup kitchens, homeless shelter and the Rogers Road Community Center.
If elected, one of my major goals will be to ensure that we are listening, collecting and applying input from diverse groups of stakeholders to our town’s decision making process. Listening to and acting on input from diverse groups is essential to ensure our community is progressive, vibrant and just.
Although I believe that the residents of Chapel Hill still value a just community, the development decisions we’ve been making lately have benefitted a select few—those affluent individuals who can afford to live in luxury apartments and condominiums. If we continue to use our tax dollars to subsidize the development of luxury high rises, we cannot expect our public services to remain excellent. These buildings add large numbers of new residents who consume public resources and do not generate enough net tax revenue to offset the additional strain they place on our public services.
My intent is to restore balance to our decision making so that we look at how we can develop Chapel Hill in ways that benefit more than just the very wealthy.
7) Small businesses, particularly those on Franklin Street, continue to open and close at an alarming rate. Please give one new idea that you believe will help small business owners steady their operations.
There is no reason that downtown Chapel Hill should be less interesting than Durham’s. Yet, it is. We can change that by understanding that revitalizing our downtown means fostering an environment that helps local businesses succeed, rather than providing incentives and giveaways to out of town developers who raise rents and drive local establishments like Pepper’s Pizza out in favor of dime-a-dozen chains such as Old Chicago Pizza and Mellow Mushroom. Furthermore, once the development of Obey Creek and Ephesus-Fordham is complete, residents will have two more reasons to take their business elsewhere. If we want to revitalize our downtown, we need to do a better job of incentivizing the development of that area, including finding ways for local businesses that want to occupy the numerous vacant and revolving storefronts on Franklin Street to achieve financial stability.
One idea that would help small business owners steady their operations would be implementing something similar to Carrboro’s revolving loan fund, which was the mechanism that helped start Weaver Street Market, a place that many Orange County residents agree is unique and valuable to our community. Implementing a similar program in Chapel Hill would enable more unique, local businesses to get off the ground by providing them with a low-interest loan until they are able to sustain themselves financially.
8) Between the Ephesus-Fordham district redevelopment and the newly approved Obey Creek development, Chapel Hill has seen a bevy of high-density, mixed-use proposals move forward in recent years. How do you balance such development with lingering environmental concerns such as protecting local creeks and limiting storm water runoff?
Before we can address the question of balancing development with environmental concerns, I believe that we need to gather input from Chapel Hill residents on the types of developments they would like to see, and where they would like to see them. Once we’ve decided those things, we need to implement appropriate storm water controls and build in green spaces. We also need to ensure that all new construction meets the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 challenge so all new buildings, developments and renovations are carbon neutral in the next 15 years. Finally, we need to do all we can to promote walkability and cycling, including ensuring that developments contain blocks that are truly “walkable” (a problem with the current Obey Creek plan) and bike paths that enable cyclists to navigate the city. That way, we can make sure we are doing all we can to protect our environment.
As far as improving proposals that are already moving forward, we need to modify the form based code for Ephesus-Fordham to include extensive water reclamation, roof gardens and enough green space so storm water ends up going into the ground rather than running off of impervious surfaces and polluting our creeks and streams. We also should improve connectivity to promote walkability between the parts of this new development and the rest of Chapel Hill.
If we can get better at making decisions from the outset based on what we value as a community, we may also be successful at dissipating some of these tensions between development and the environment in the future. For example, Chapel Hill has always been a community that values green space and the environment. If that’s the case, why did the town decided to build Obey Creek and Ephesus-Fordham in floodplains and approve new developments that are not LEED certified? If we had applied our values to decision making from the get-go, we would not be worrying about figuring out ways to prevent storm water from running off impervious surfaces and keeping our drinking water pure.
9) Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Chapel Hill. We've seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.
The issue of affordable housing is another example of the glaring disconnect between our values and our actions. Although we are a community that says affordable housing is a priority, many requirements for affordable housing in new development agreements have either been insufficient (e.g., 500 sq. foot apartments not meant for families) or entirely absent. We need to do a better job of making sure all development agreements truly reflect our values. If elected, I would advocate requiring that developers of residential construction allocate 20% of their units toward affordable housing, with a minimum of at least 3 bedrooms per unit. I would also explore partnerships with non-profits that would incentivize construction of affordable housing on town-owned land.
I also think it is important to look beyond simply the cost of rent when evaluating whether housing meets the “affordable” standard. We need to make sure that affordable housing units are conveniently located close to public transportation and shopping so occupants can get to work, go shopping and attend school. We also need to make sure that these units are energy efficient so utility bills do not end up making what on the surface seems affordable, in fact, unaffordable.
10) In Chapel Hill, the university provides a prosperous retail base, fuel for a feisty cultural scene and a pipeline for local leadership. But its presence also contributes a great deal to Chapel Hill's housing problem. What could the university do better with regard to local housing needs? How would you work to foster such agreements?
Our university is at the heart of our community. In fact, I believe that the fates of our town and the university are inexorably linked—without the support of the university, our vision for Chapel Hill will not become a reality.
Currently, the town’s and university’s approaches to student housing are incongruous. While our town continues to build student housing at break neck speed, the university is struggling to find students to fill dorms, resulting in financial losses. At the same time, rising costs of living and students who wish to live off campus are driving residents of historic neighborhoods that border the university, such as Northside, out of their homes in droves. By working closely with the university we can determine what types of student housing are necessary, rather than simply moving forward quickly with the types are most profitable for developers. We could also jointly explore creative solutions that benefit students and residents.
For example, we could look at converting some of the vacant dorm rooms into workforce housing for university employees, rather than conference spaces and residences for out of town visitors to the university. Another example would be to use the vacant dorms to provide affordable retirement housing for those employees who have dedicated a substantial part of their lives to serving the university. We could even partner with the UNC School of Social Work to provide social services to those who choose to live there. Either one of these solutions would certainly make Chapel Hill, and its university, a national leader in cultivating the type of inclusive environment that demonstrates we truly care about the people who contribute to our community.
11) Certain Chapel Hill neighborhoods have objected to the light rail line that is currently being planned. They are concerned that the rail line will create dangerous traffic problems and otherwise disrupt their quality of life. What do you believe the city can or should do to address their concerns?
A big part of my vision for Chapel Hill is to increase community involvement in decision making. As we continue our ongoing discussions on light rail, we need to integrate input from citizens, advisory boards and experts in order to make sure we are making the best decision possible. Before making any decision about the light rail project, I would need to know a) who would stand to benefit from it and b) who will be most impacted, and what they have to say about it.
I believe that studies and discussion about light rail should not distract us from exploring other opportunities to improve connectivity and transportation, such as bus services, cycling routes and sidewalks.
In order to improve safety and minimize congestion and noise, the city should work to minimize the number of “at grade” street crossings in its design of the light rail.
12) Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homogeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?
I believe that our challenges with diversity are the result of another disconnect between what we value as a community and what we are doing as a town. If we want a diverse community, we need to create places where different types of people can—and want to—live, work, and play. We also need to build a community that makes different types of people feel welcome, and that demonstrates a respect for differences by valuing unique and different businesses instead of upscale chains.
In many ways, accessibility is tied to affordability. If we want our community to be diverse, we need to make it affordable and convenient for different types of people to live here. For example, we need to provide convenient public transportation options so residents can easily shop for groceries and discount goods.
When we do not work hard at making Chapel Hill affordable for everyone, it not only goes against our stated values as a community, but impacts everyone in concrete ways. For example, on a particularly snowy day last year, our buses were unable to run. Not because of any type of mechanical problem, but because our bus drivers—who cannot afford to live in town—could not get to work.
To encourage diversity, there are two questions I would ask when making policy decisions: 1) Is the policy incentivizing the kind of growth that is welcoming to everyone? 2) Is the policy incentivizing types of growth that will be accessible to everyone?