Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website: www.leestorrow.com
Occupation & employer: Executive Director, NC AIDS Action Network
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 9
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 you will advocate if elected?
Over the last four years, the Chapel Hill city government has many accomplishments to celebrate. We opened an expanded library that houses a larger collection, provides resources for those most at need, and serves as a community gathering place. In partnership with UNC and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, we opened LaUNCh Chapel Hill, a start-up accelerator that along with the opening of Google and 1789 Venture Lab is ushering in a new culture of innovation in our downtown. We approved a form-based code in the Ephesus-Fordham region of town that will transform suburban style strip-mall developments and parking lots into a vibrant, mixed use neighborhood with improved connectivity and stormwater protections.
We’ve made major strides toward affordable housing goals, with new affordable units coming on-line supported and paid for by private developers, along with the approval of a groundbreaking project in partnership with DHIC to build affordable housing on town owned land. We’re setting long term goals for our transportation system, and will purchase over a dozen new buses over the next year to bring down the average age of our fleet. We’ve also begun the North-South Corridor Study to plan enhanced transit service along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 15-501. We’ve budgeted responsibly, and the voters will have the opportunity this fall to vote on a $40 million bond package that if approved, will allow us to build new sidewalks, greenways, stormwater improvements, and recreational and solid waste facilities.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.
Affordable housing has been a major priority for the town council, and will continue to be in the future. Last year, the town included funding in our budget equivalent to a penny on the tax rate that’s designated for affordable housing projects. We entered into a new agreement with the Community Home Trust (CHT) to increase our support and their flexibility in managing over 200 permanently affordable homes in their inventory. Private developers must play an important part in addressing affordability as well. Several new developers have included affordable rental components in their projects where the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance doesn’t apply at the urging of the town council. I’ll continue to be a strong advocate for including affordable housing in new developments. I’ve also supported new projects that will expand our commercial tax base to reduce pressure on property taxes.
Setting a path forward for long-term sustainability is vital for the future of Chapel Hill Transit. Chapel Hill has one of the largest public transportation systems in the state. Our partnership with UNC and the town of Carrboro has allowed us to operate the system fare-free, and we have the second highest ridership in North Carolina. Historically, we’ve depended upon federal funds to purchase new buses, but with the economic downturn and shifting national priorities, those resources are no longer as plentiful. The fleet age of our buses is significantly higher than best practice, and several years ago we started researching and planning alternative options for long-term sustainability. This planning is starting to pay off, and we’ll add over a dozen new buses to our fleet this year through a combination of outright purchases and financing over a period of several years to minimize upfront costs. While it’s vital that we maintain the current system as it is today, it’s also time that we start looking at future plans for expansion of the system to increase accessibility for residents and visitors to get around our community.
Finally, providing sewer service to the historic Rogers Road neighborhood is vital to paying back a debt we owe to this neighborhood. Orange County and Chapel Hill leaders placed our landfill adjacent in the Rogers Road neighborhood decades ago, and at the time promised the delivery of water and sewer service along with a new community center for the neighborhood. Unfortunately, local leaders at the time did not live up to those promises, and residents have been waiting for these services for decades. In 2012, a task-force was created with membership from Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the neighborhood. I served on the second incarnation of the task force, and helped write the final recommendations.
The ribbon was cut to open the new community center last year, and we’ve made initial steps toward engineering for sewer services. The town has allocated close to $750,000 to these projects, and will need to allocate additional financial resources to finish the project in partnership with other local governments. You might be surprised to hear me list this issue as one of the top three facing the town. It’s not a regional project, and one could argue that it only benefits a small number of residents, most of which do not reside in Chapel Hill. Residents of Chapel Hill owe a debt to the Rogers Road neighborhood, since all of us have had our trash dumped in their backyard prior to the landfill closing in 2013. It does a disservice to our progressive community that we continued to haul our trash to this neighborhood for decades, and took us even longer to provide the basic benefits that we promised to the neighborhood.
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?
I’m proud of my track record and individual accomplishments as a council member. My record shows a history of bringing diverse stakeholders together and working to find solutions to problems both big and small in Chapel Hill. While the council as a whole has much to be proud of over the last four years, I’ve highlighted three projects where I took individual leadership to solve problems.
- Increasing the amount of office space and retail required at Obey Creek. I introduced a proposal during the development agreement process that requires a greater percentage of the development to the office space and retail. Office and retail bring in greater tax revenue than residential units, and are important components to diversifying our tax base.
- Re-opening the Community Center Pool during weekdays. During the recession, the town council closed our indoor Community Center Pool during the daytime to cut costs. During my campaign in 2011, I heard from a number of residents who had depended on access to the pool for exercise and recreation during the daytime. During our budget process in 2012, I worked with staff and council colleagues to present a plan to reopen during the daytime on select weekdays while offsetting the costs with a minor increase to private swim lessons, a service that benefits significantly less residents than open swim time.
- Petitioning for a better food truck ordinance. The council rewrote our food truck ordinance prior to my election in 2011, but the fees and restrictions were so cumbersome that no food trucks applied for a permit over the next year. I petitioned the council to revise our food truck ordinance, believing it’s important that we support entrepreneurs and folks just starting out in their careers. The council successfully rewrote our ordinance to decrease barriers to entry. Since then, we’ve seen local Chapel Hill restaurants like Sutton’s and Time Out begin to expand their market by opening food trucks, and churches and nonprofits hold food truck rodeos as fundraisers and community gathering spaces. This fall, Captain Poncho’s is opening a brick and mortar restaurant in Southern Village.
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.
At its core, I think one of the council’s core roles is to provide pro-active accessible opportunities for the community to provide feedback to council members. I can think of two occasions recently when we’ve not lived up to our best when it comes to public engagement.
● During the Central West process, we were meeting in a county owned building because of construction in town hall. We were required to end the meeting at a certain time, and did not allow enough opportunity for all who signed up to for public comment to speak before the council.
● Earlier this year, the town accidently included the wrong address for a proposed development on the cover page of our agenda, and some neighbors were not aware that development would be discussed at that meeting.
Our process for development review (and all important topics) requires the town to hold multiple meetings and public hearings, and citizens had multiple opportunities to engage on both of these topics after these mistakes. At the same time, no matter how transparent and open we are, many citizens will find the process of engaging with town officials and staff confusing, and one bad experience will impact one’s perception of civic life in our community. After both of these incidents, I responded to citizens who couldn’t speak the next day, and set up meetings with them to talk through why these mistakes were made and provide an opportunity for me to hear their viewpoints and thoughts in a more personal setting than a formal council meeting.
While I’ve mentioned many significant successes, our partnership with DHIC to build affordable rental housing on town owned land and successful application for tax credits stands out to me as the single best thing the town has done this year. It’s a creative approach to one of our most pressing problems, and a great example of how local government and the non-profit community can partner together to address problems.
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?
While the word liberal is often stigmatized, I don’t shy away from the term. I believe that government can and should improve people’s lives. No entity is better equipped or prepared to provide public transportation, library services, public safety, or education for all than government.
My nonprofit work has focused on advancing public health through governmental policies that increase access to safe abortion, reduce tobacco consumption amongst youth, ensure citizens have access to healthy food and live in environments that incentivize physical activity, and decrease stigma for those living with HIV and AIDS. Strong partnerships and leadership from government is required to advance these important public health goals.
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?
In writing this questionnaire, I reflected on the answers I submitted during my first campaign four years ago. My answer to this question jumped out at me. In 2011, I wrote:
“Symbolic representation is important, and I’m proud to live in a town that elected the first openly gay man in North Carolina. As a gay man, I thought I grew up in a North Carolina than had progressed since Joe Herzenberg sat on council, one that has felt open and inclusive. Recent action by the North Carolina General Assembly have changed that perspective, and makes it ever more important that we elect openly LGBT officials in our state.”
I wish over the last four years we would have seen progress on LGBT rights at a state level in North Carolina, but I’m afraid we are only moving backward. While great progress has been made nationally, we saw in North Carolina the passage of SB2, along with robust discussion around the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The one silver lining in that debate was Governor McCrory’s decision to veto SB2, a decision that came after large public outcry, including public pressure placed on the governor by openly gay mayors of North Carolina cities and towns. Having a diverse council makes a difference, both for local decisions and our ability to speak up for just policy on a broader level.
On a local level, I’ve been a strong advocate for policies that advance social justice in our own community. Whether it’s advocating for the Rogers Road or Northside neighborhood, speaking up for protesters who engage in civil disobedience, or working to connect students and young people into civic life, I’ve worked to ensure that ALL citizens living in our community have a fair shot. I know that some residents who engage in local government have more access and resources than others, and want to ensure those who aren’t accustomed to engaging in bureaucracy or local government have their voice listened to and acted upon.
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.
While there is always more that can be done, I’m proud of many accomplishments the town has made toward creating a vibrant and engaging downtown. The opening of 140 West (including a town owned plaza that’s quickly becoming a new community gathering space), approval of redevelopment at University Square (now Carolina Square), implementation of ParkMobile to allow residents to pay for parking on their smartphone, and DSI Comedy opening on West Franklin have all contributed toward a vibrant business climate in our downtown.
While it’s troubling and concerning anytime a business closes in our downtown, we have a fairly healthy occupancy rate for a community of our size. We’re lucky to have the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership as a strong advocate for downtown, and their staff frequently works closely with landlords and tenants to fill open storefronts quickly.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve working with various stakeholders in the community about how we can better showcase and connect artistic endeavors to support a vibrant downtown Chapel Hill. The opening of The Core@Carolina Square (Carolina Performing Art’s new venue) provides a powerful opportunity to connect artistic excellence at UNC with our broader community, while bringing more citizens and patrons to downtown.
In 2012, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community took an Inter-City Visit to Bloomington, Indiana to see how another college community faces similar challenges. Several years ago, Bloomington branded their downtown as the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District (see more at visitbead.com) to highlight their great arts venues, restaurants and stores. Chapel Hill should look to creating our own cultural arts district. Much of the groundwork to implement such a vision has already been down. The Downtown Imagined planning process has helped to set a vision for the future, and in partnership with UNC, public policy students have identified and mapped our community's diverse cultural assets. During a second term, I would build on work already done and bring the necessary stakeholders together to move forward on implementing our own creative entertainment and arts district.
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 stormwater runoff?
I’ve brought a pragmatic approach to new development proposals in Chapel Hill during my first term on council. I voted against the Charterwood development because of environmental concerns, negative impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, and a lack of evidence that the project would positively impact Chapel Hill economically. I’ve also expressed strong objections to the proposed 1609 East Franklin project during the initial concept design.
The Ephesus-Fordham district and Obey Creek development both included strong standards to address environmental concerns, and those standards evolved and changed through the process based on community input. Much of the Ephesus-Fordham district was originally developed during a time when strong stormwater standards didn’t exist in Chapel Hill. Eastgate shopping center was built on top of an active creek, something that almost certainly wouldn’t occur today. Initial plans for the Ephesus-Fordham district included plans to deal with stormwater concerns through the construction of large retaining ponds near or adjacent to the district. Further study and feedback from our stormwater board and the public led us to the conclusion that those plans would be impractical and excessively expensive. In turn, the code now requires all developers to conform to strict stormwater standards for any redevelopment, leading to an improvement in stormwater control for both quantity and quality standards from existing conditions.
The Obey Creek development includes some of the strictest stormwater controls ever passed for a development in Orange County, and included extensive discussion and debate from our stormwater advisory board. By placing 2/3rds of the property in a permanent conservation easement (as recommended by our stormwater advisory board), the council made a responsible decision to support the long-term health of Wilson Creek and advance environmental goals.
The new Ephesus-Fordham district and Obey Creek development will address other council and community priorities. Both projects provide opportunities for desperately needed new office space, and advance community goals of increasing connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists.
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.
There is no silver bullet to addressing affordable housing our community. We’ve made great strides and progress toward addressing affordable housing, but have to continue innovating and exploring new ideas to address this important issue.
Our Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance is recognized as a model, both statewide and nationally, for how to require affordable housing in new for-sale developments. Our nonprofit providers and advocates (Habitat for Humanity, EmPowerment Inc, Community Home Trust, CASA) fill a vital role in providing affordable housing for our community. As already mentioned, our partnership with DHIC to build affordable rental housing on town owned land addresses a gap in the market that we haven’t filled through previous efforts, and the town stepped up to the plate last year to fund affordable housing during our budget process with a local allocation equivalent to a penny on the tax rate. Developing in Chapel Hill is a privilege, and we have high expectations that private developers build affordable housing in new projects.
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?
Over the course of my first term on council, I’ve built strong relationships with both student leaders and administrators at UNC. Town gown relations are arguably at one of their strongest points in decades, and I believe much of that can be attributed to strong personal relationships between town and University leaders.
Earlier this year, UNC announced the Northside Neighborhood Initiative, a milestone in town gown relations that grew out of years of work between the town, UNC, and our nonprofit partners. UNC has committed $3 million to support affordable housing efforts in this important, historically African-American neighborhood. UNC has also leased university-owned land for $1 a year to the Inter-Faith Council to build our new men’s shelter that opens later this month, and UNC Healthcare donated $100,000 toward its construction.
I would continue an open dialogue with UNC leaders about the importance of affordable housing in our community and would push them to make event greater contributions. I’ve already worked to identify and educate non-traditional leaders on affordable housing issues, like staff in the office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. UNC must continue to be engaged in this conversation, and we’ll need to ask for more support in the future. We also need to recognize and acknowledge the work they are already doing. Given recent state level budget cuts and attacks on higher education, UNC must be strategic in where they invest their resources.
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?
The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project will provide major benefits to our community. Light rail transit will increase access to many more jobs for low-income residents of Chapel Hill and Orange County, especially since many of the major employers along the corridor charge for parking or have severe parking restrictions. When the light rail line opens, Chapel Hill Transit will be able to redirect buses to other lines and parts of town in need of increased service. The light rail line allows our community to grow and develop in a more sustainable way, and supports public health goals by providing more opportunities for residents to commute and move around the community on public transit, foot, and bicycle.
The town and county's elected representatives (through local resolutions, and representation on the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization and GoTriangle Board of Trustees) have been and will continue to be part of the process of designing the system and mitigating any impacts that may exist. I’ve walked the proposed route with concerned citizens that originally ran through Meadowmont and environmentally sensitive land. Recent objections have come from neighborhoods not in the town of Chapel Hill, although I will will continue to actively engage with all citizens with thoughts about the proposed plan, whether they live in Orange or Durham County.
12) Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homegeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?
Increasing accessibility and encouraging diversity requires us to address real concerns about affordability in our community. Chapel Hill has some of the highest property taxes in the state of North Carolina, and both the town and the county set the property tax rate. We have to work both in our town and across the county to increase our economic tax base to diversify how local government is funded. That means supporting projects in our town, like the creative partnership the town led with LaUNCh Chapel Hill and 3 Birds Marketing several years ago, and projects in greater Orange County like the new Morinaga production facility. In previous questions I’ve addressed a number of approaches to increasing affordable housing like increasing the housing supply, supporting non-profit partners, and requiring developers to include affordable housing in new projects.
As a councilmember, I’ve been committed to making sure our boards and commissions, which often serve as pipelines for council service and other leadership in the community, reflect the diversity of our town. When we reappointed members to our advisory boards and commissions last year, I helped ensure that there was a student or young person on every development review board. At the start of the year, our Planning Commission members all identified as Caucasian, and when we appointed new members I actively recruited a more diverse applicant pool to ensure that the board would reflect the diversity of our community.