Candidates pressed on growth, transit at city council forum

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Managing growth and developing a better public transit system were topics that took center stage at a public forum for Raleigh City Council candidates, held Thursday night at Temple Beth Or by WakeUP Wake County and the Wake County League of Women Voters. About 75 voters turned out to pitch questions to the candidates from their district.

The audience appeared concerned with how candidates planned to address issues associated with the city’s rapid growth, projected to add 200,000 to the population over the next 20 years.

“I think we’re at a critical point here. We’re going to have to set priorities and be smart about what we do,” said John Suddath, an audience member who took diligent notes during the forum.

Voters listen to the candidates at the forum hosted by
WakeUp Wake County and the Wake County League of
Women Voters. Photo by Andrew Mayo.

The first series of questions were formulated by moderator Marian Lewin of the League of Women Voters. The second part consisted of audience-submitted queries.

Candidates were pressed on how they would deal with public transportation. The improvement of the current CAT bus system was a popular priority. Answers varied from providing riders with incentives, like free wireless service, suggested by at-large candidate Lee Sartain. Thomas Crowder, seeking re-election in District D, said he supports adding more frequent stops to a system he called “very, very undeveloped.”

Crowder himself doesn’t actually use the system, as he admitted after someone in the audience asked him how often he rode CAT. His opponent, Ted Van Dyk, said he didn’t use CAT very often either.

District D candidates Ted Van Dyk, left, and Thomas
Crowder, right, at the candidate forum. Photo by
Andrew Mayo.

Paying for growth was another topic that dominated the conversation. Impact fees — paid by developers of new housing — came with mixed opinions. District B candidate John Odom, a former city council member and the most fiscally conservative candidate, doesn’t want to increase the ones already in place; while his opponent, incumbent Rodger Koopman, said he supports a graduated system. Koopman and Odom also differed on their opinions about affordable housing. While Koopman wants to see 10 percent of all new neighborhoods mandated as affordable housing, Odom was more skeptical — he said that plan would be nice, but what’s really required is the courage to put it in place.

Below is a list of questions and answers divvied up by district. Several candidates were absent, and their answers are not reflected here.

At Large

Candidates: Russ Stephenson (incumbent); Lee Sartain

Q: (moderator) Do you think the city of Raleigh has done enough to ensure a long-term water supply, and if not, what measures would you recommend?

Lee Sartain: “What we’re going to have to see happen in Raleigh is a more year-round conservation effort. Conservation needs to become a way of life in our city. We need to be working with the state and other municipalities to address long-term water supply capacity issues.”

Russ Stephenson: “I worked for a year to help convince our staff and council that we need to move from an attitude of consumption…to an attitude of conservation. I think we’ve come a long way.”

Q: (moderator) As municipalities grow, the schools system must cope. How will we pay for schools?

Stephenson: “We need infrastructure to help pay for those capital and infrastructure costs so more dollars can go to education. If we’re at capacity in certain areas, (we should) hold off on development permits for those areas. Those are both good tools to ensure a high quality school system that will keep our county strong.”

Sartain: “Where the city can make the biggest impact is in areas like planning. School construction will continue to be a costly issue for us, and (we should focus on) really steering development where we have capacity.”

Q: (audience) Assuming light rail is years in the future at best, what can Raleigh do now to improve public transportation?

Sartain: “One of the things that I thin is really a prelude to rail is to enhance bus service. You want to make bus service an incentive. You don’t just sell the fact you have a bus going right by your house, you want to talk about the value of riding the bus; (for example), you can get to work stress free or work while you’re riding.

Stephenson: “I agree that the future of our city really depends on us developing transportation choices beyond just single automobiles and gas engines. I believe that we will follow in the footsteps of Charlotte with a transit referendum. I agree with Mr. Sartain that we need to show people that we can provide an excellent service to people with buses that will get them excited.”

Q: (audience) The current cost of CAT service is $2 million taxpayer dollars to $200,000 in revenue. What are your views on this?

Stephenson: “We’ve become so accustomed to thinking our asphalt system of roads is free, but it is something we pay dearly for. I do think it will take a forceful statement in a bond referendum to really kick start a serious move toward a serious transit system. We can do little demonstration projects like the R-Line, and we can continue to do so, but I look forward to making some significant city and countywide investments in transit.”

Sartain: “Transportation systems are subsidized by the taxpayers at large. Making sure that we grow ridership is the most important thing we can do.”

District A

Candidate: Nancy McFarlane (incumbent)

Q: (moderator) What measures should the City of Raleigh take to protect the Falls Lake watershed and what measures should be taken to address stormwater regulations?

Nancy McFarlane: “There are many regulations we can improve on. One we’re considering is to increase the stormwater runoff requirements during construction. Silt is the biggest pollutant in Falls Lake, and it causes all kinds of problems. One of the things we are able to control is the amount of silt and stormwater that does wash off the sites. We’re looking at beefing up those, and they should be coming back for a vote before too long. The other thing we need to do is to start thinking about acting regionally. We can work together with municipalities to help beef up regulations.”

Q: (audience) Have you read the new comprehensive plan update, and what is your view of its use and value to the growth and development of the greater Raleigh area? Is there anything you believe needs to be changed?

McFarlane: “We have spent the last few months doing nothing but reading the comprehensive plan update. There’s been a great deal of thought put into it. I think the next year and a half, as we rewrite our COD, is going to spell out for us how that plan is put into place. I think one of the great things they have built into the process is the update every five years. I think there’s always room for improvement, and that’s sort of the challenge, is to keep your eye on things as they change and evolve.”

Q: (audience) Do you think the city is doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and what would be your priorities for promoting energy conservation and renewable energy sources?

McFarlane: “I’m proud of the things we have done. We are currently installing a one megawatt solar field, and that power will be purchased by Progress Energy for sale back to the grid. We’ve also talked about looking at other open spaces, but we have so many parking decks and large building tops that sometimes it’s cost prohibitive. But I think we’re looking at more and more opportunities, and I think this is an area where we could really step up. All of our buildings that we do will be LEED certified (in the future). I think we’re making really good steps.”

District B

Candidates: Rodger Koopman (incumbent), John Odom

Q: (moderator) Do you support further (impact) fee increases? Should we change the way these fees are used in the city to encourage growth in targeted areas?

Rodger Koopman: “Yes, but I do believe we need incentives for affordable housing, and we should lower impact fees to facilitate that. Right now, the impact fee is flat and doesn’t reflect these kinds of incentives. I’m fine with raising them, because the cost of growth today is mostly subsidized by you and I, the taxpayers, which I believe is unfair. We need to make sure we tweak it to build in incentives for affordable housing.”

John Odom: “I’m not for impact fees or raising taxes. I think there’s other ways we can save that money.”

Q: (moderator) What are your priorities for the uses of future parks in Raleigh, i.e., balancing nature parks with things like dog parks?

Odom: “I’m the guy who stepped up to the plate and said we need to buy Horseshoe Farm. We need more parks. We need more gyms, we need more baseball fields…but we also need open space. If you look at my record, (during my time on the council), we put more parks per person than ever before.”

Koopman: “This is a false choice, because we need both. We need nature parks, but we also need active recreation. A second part of this is that parks and recreation provide tremendous economic value. It’s not either, it’s both.

Q: (audience) What should the city do to make sure affordable housing is evenly dispersed throughout the city?

Koopman: “The city can do a lot through our planning and zoning process, and to crate incentives like graduated impact fees. If we build diverse neighborhoods, we reduce pressure on the school system. I think it’s time for the city to put teeth behind efforts to get this kind of diversity, (and plan) at least 10 percent of new neighborhoods as affordable housing.”

Odom: “I agree with Koopman, but there’s one ingredient you have to have — the courage to put it in place. Most of the affordable housing is in Districts C and B. You’ve got to have the courage to make that happen. It’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Q: (audience) Do you consider publicly supported community food gardens to be an integral element of the green space protection and land use plan?

Odom: “Not at this point.”

Koopman: “I absolutely support these community gardens. I have not looked at that plan cogently, but I think it’s a great idea and I definitely support it.”

District C

Candidate: James West (incumbent)

Q: (moderator) How do you assess the need for public transit? Do you support additional municipal revenue and a possible countywide referendum to increase the sales tax by one half cent (for public transit)?

James West: “Yes. The whole issue is very critical with (our) sprawl. I think Charlotte has been an example of some things we can start. It’s not going to be easy. We tried some things earlier that were not so successful, but I think we have a clear vision.”

Q: (moderator) Affordable housing is not as available in Raleigh as other places, particularly in the downtown district. Do you have any recommendations for improving the supply of affordable housing, and do you support zoning measures to ensure that?

West: “I do not support mandatory inclusionary zoning. I’ve worked with almost every nonprofit in the city in terms of trying to get more affordable housing. I think the affordable housing task force did a good job, and I think some of their recommendations were integrated into the Comprehensive Plan. (It will take) incentives, streamlining our development process, and bringing people to the table to work together for a common goal.”

Q: (audience) The current economic downturn has placed pressure on the city of Raleigh. If elected, what would you do to balance city priorities over the next few years?

West: “There’s always competition between our revenue and the cost of services. I think we definitely need to look at an equation as it relates to fees vs. property taxes, and look at things that are fair and also things that will tend to generate business and bring income and revenue into the city and improve the quality of life in general. I believe the property tax is probably the fairest tax.”

District D

Candidates: Thomas Crowder (incumbent), Ted Van Dyk

Q: (moderator) How do you think these priorities will be implemented that will be guiding future growth in Raleigh (in reference to the recently passed comprehensive plan Future Land Use Plan)?

Thomas Crowder: “I want to thank the residents of District D; we created the 2030 Comprehensive Plan study group, and they looked at the entire district over 10 months. They did an outstanding job, and I think that will help our district as we go forward. We are going to have a transition period which is very critical. Currently, the planning department has some changes to the current ordinance and we’re looking at those very carefully. (We have to consider) what does the public get in return for higher density?”

Ted Van Dyk: “I think there’s still some things that need to be addressed and worked on. It looks to me that the planning department budget is a quarter million less than last year. We need to be able to create a blueprint we all agree on, but we need to commit the resources it takes to do that. We need to understand transit needs to be woven into the fabric of our cities…including sidewalks and bike paths along with light rail.”

Q: (moderator) Public funding devices such as tax increment financing have been approved in North Carolina. What is your view on the use of city tax subsidies to assist private development in Raleigh?

Van Dyk: “Here in Raleigh, I think we’re in the early stages of understanding the TIF system, which is a system where we bet on future increased tax revenues. As we move forward with our transit plans, like rail and park and ride, this is one of the many different funding options we’re going to need to be looking at.”

Crowder: “We have to be extremely careful on any kind of incentives that we give development. We can look at a graduated impact fee system, (where) long-range service area should pay the highest fee, and affordable housing should pay no fee. We should reduce the impact fee on market rate housing. There are plenty of opportunities to look at how to incentivize development.”

Q: (audience) “If elected, will you do anything to promote walkable communities and complete streets? With NC State being such a growing pedestrian area and the Hillsborough Street reconstruction, how do you see bike lanes entering into the picture?

Crowder: “I was one of the first to push our transportation department to move toward the complete street program. All our major thoroughfares need to have multipurpose paths, and in the future we need walkable, mixed use development.”

Van Dyk: “I would like to remind everyone that sidewalks and bike paths are transit. We can see roads with no sidewalks, with no shoulders, almost gravel roads in parts of District D. Our next path, when we start to recover, is to address these fine grain issues. The only way to get this walkable city is by increasing density. We’ve got to prepare with more dense, rich, urban fabric as we go into the 21st century.”

Q: (audience) How often do you ride the CAT bus? How would you propose to improve the transit system?

Van Dyk: “I seldom ride the CAT bus (he added that he’s able to walk from his home to office, and takes an electric scooter downtown). I’m very committed to the bus system. We have a very, very underdeveloped bus system. Buses that run one time an hour we can’t consider a transit system at this point. Another part of the bus system that merits improvement is visibility. We only have one transit station in Moore Square. I think we can be more visible with transit stops, transit stations, and park and rides, and we need a system that operates frequently enough.”

Crowder: “Unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to ride our transit system that often. However, I’m very proud to have worked out a partnership with Capital Broadcasting Company to provide much needed shelters and benches at no cost to the city. We have a five-year transit plan for buses. I think one of the major things we need to do is look at our routes. With the new Comprehensive Plan, we have an opportunity to study that further.”

District E

Candidate: Bonner Gaylord

Q: (moderator) As Raleigh grows, how do we keep up with increased demand for services? Do you support raising property taxes or impact fees?

Bonner Gaylord: “As a city, we need to look to minimize what waste we can find within the government…and take those issues to the voters if that’s necessary.”

Q: (moderator) City council has approved development on the outskirts of the city and into long-range service areas which required expanding water and sewer. How would you reconcile growth and economic development with the need to protect the watershed?

Gaylord: “We’ve got to find places for those people. The answers of where to place those people is going to be varied, and guided by the comprehensive plan and ordinances. Our watershed is a resource that we can’t put a value on. We’ve got to make sure to protect that regardless of how or where we’re growing and make that of primary importance.”

Q: (audience) Do you support a sales tax to build the light rail?

Gaylord: “As a voter, I absolutely will vote for it, but I look forward to that being put to the voters.”

Q: (audience) In this time of economic hardship, do you see a role for the arts and public art as a city responsibility?

Gaylord: “Arts are an important part of the city. We’ve got a fantastic arts program downtown. The city’s role I think is varied. The funding we’ve already done for arts is wonderful. Expanding current programs is something we need to look at on a case by case basis.”

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