Melissa McCullough is running for Town Council in Chapel Hill. McCullough, who has contributed to Triangle Blog Blog, spent 31 years at EPA and retired as the Senior Sustainability Advisor and Assistant Director of the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program.
She is a member of the local Sierra Club leadership team and served for 7 years on the Planning Board in Chapel Hill. She has also served as a Democratic Party precinct chair, and was on the board of the Bike Alliance of Chapel Hill (BACH).
On her website, Melissa writes that she’s running because she wants “to make sure that all Chapel Hillians have a livable planet and a green, connected, and equitable community now and in the future.”
We interviewed Melissa via email about her campaign and her vision for Chapel Hill.
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What are your focus areas for the council race?
My three main focus areas are Housing, Transportation and Environment. These are main decision areas for the Town Council, and they are interconnected in such a way that, when done right, allow us to create a sustainable, equitable and economically vibrant Chapel Hill with a high quality of life for everyone.
I have expertise and professional experience in community sustainability from my multi-decade career with the US Environmental Protection Agency, and I want to apply that to make Chapel Hill a great place for future generations.
We are in a housing crisis, and we need to add housing within our urban services boundary, which the Rural Buffer defines for us.
Making more housing, and more housing types, available in town can more efficiently use land that’s already developed, cut the pollution from the 40,000 cars that commute in each day, make having starter homes possible, and save forests and farms from additional sprawl that adds impervious areas and fragments habitats.
Additional housing on the continuum of density types can make transit more feasible in more places and create a more walkable community. And, as always, we should make every effort we can to build subsidized affordable housing in town so that community members who are homeless or housing insecure have a safe, comfortable place to live, too.
We need to expand our transit system, both better connecting regionally (those commuters!) as well as making more destinations conveniently accessible. Transit makes more efficient use of roads, is critical to meeting our climate goals, and makes it equitably possible for people to get around regardless of age, income, or physical ability to drive a car. Effective transit is all about connecting walkable destinations, and a recent poll showed that most people want to live in walkable places. This also means that we need to make more housing and commercial development around transit nodes, especially Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stops in our forthcoming North-South BRT.
The environment must be protected and restored as much as possible in our urban system. Climate resilience will depend on trees, stormwater management, efficient energy use, and a community that doesn’t require cars for everything.
Nearly all Council decisions affect the environment in some way, and we must consider how decisions for one issue affect other issues in order to seize “two-birds” opportunities and avoid unintended consequences..
What are three things that you believe the town could be doing better?
We could do more to integrate equitably accessible green space into the town fabric, in the form of street trees and parks from tiny to large to linear. Trees mitigate stormwater, heat, and air pollution as well as foster physical and mental health.
We need to partner with everyone we can to get more green space and street trees throughout town. Our Everywhere to Everywhere Greenways plan is a great way to integrate that green space with the function of transportation.
The town took an important first step to bring missing middle housing (housing that’s more dense than single family but less dense than apartment buildings) to Chapel Hill, reintroducing historic duplex housing forms. As it is, Single Family Only zoning does not pay enough in taxes to cover municipal services; missing middle housing taxes better cover the services that we all use and rely on.
However, we need to go further so that we can make more modest homes available to young people, empty nesters and others who don’t qualify for subsidized housing but want housing they can afford. Even gentle densification of housing will make transit service feasible in more places, will make full use of, and adequately fund, existing infrastructure, and help people who work in our community live here as well.
We must figure out how to get more diverse voices to the Council, Commissions, and public meetings. This starts by recognizing that traditional methods of community engagement—coming to council meetings and speaking—privileges wealthy, white homeowners: those who are proportionally more likely to be able to attend an hours-long meeting on a weeknight.
We must think outside the box if we want our whole community to be represented in our town’s decisionmaking. Council and Staff do a very good job of making opportunities for the community to be heard around plans and actions. Websites and newsletters make town news available.
We should reach out to representative organizations to see how we can make it feasible for more people to speak up and be heard – like youth, renters, those who use affordable housing, and the like. It would also be fruitful to reach out to future or potential residents to learn what would make Chapel Hill an appealing and affordable community for them to live in..
What are the things you think the town currently is doing right?
The Town has very progressive goals and plans for a complete community, integrated mobility, everywhere to everywhere greenways, and the like. Council has done a great job of bringing in world class consultants and listening to them! If we can continue to make those plans a reality, we will make real progress. The devil is in the details, though, and we need to take every advantage of monies available under the Inflation Reduction Act to get that work done.
Chapel Hill is doing a good job with affordable housing (given funds available) and we are lucky to have our inclusionary zoning, despite the General Assembly and our lack of Home Rule.
We have built quite a bit of affordable housing in the last decade and are fortunately building more on the Legion Road property.
Housing affordability is a national crisis, and we certainly need more supply across the board. As we reckon with this crisis, we should explore all options, like public private partnerships and revolving loans, to see how we might accelerate our efforts.
How has your experience on the Chapel Hill Planning Board informed your decision to run?
I applied to the Planning Board because I wanted to use my career experience to work for my town. I am an applied ecologist/environmental problem solver by training.
I spent the last 20 years of a nearly 40 year career in community sustainability because I saw the environmental damage caused by the American form of development– localized, project-by-project land use decisions, made at the local level without an awareness of cumulative sprawl impacts.
The result has been a way of life requiring us to drive nearly everywhere, transportation contributing the most to climate-changing pollution, too many farms and forests paved over, social isolation undermining the social capital that creates “community,” and a tax base that isn’t economically sustainable.
I used my time on the Planning Board to try to put our individual decisions into that integrated community system context and to raise awareness about that context. However, it was frustrating that the decisions were reactive, a yes or no to specific proposals.
I decided to run for Town Council because serving in that way will give me opportunity to apply my experience proactively, to help decide what kind of town we want to be in 50 or 100 years, and to help build a community with a high quality of life, climate resiliency, and economic sustainability.
We’re curious how you plan to engage with constituents. We know some people use social media or office hours or newsletters – what’s your plan to let people know what’s up?
I like how some officials have “office hours” in a public place at a regular time. I plan to do that, as talking one on one is something that allows a safe space for listening and in-depth discussion about an issue. I have a Twitter profile that will be useful for announcements and short commentary.
For more in depth writing on a subject, I have a free-subscription Substack on which I can give explanations, evaluations, and just plain news.
But one thing I found in community outreach efforts at EPA is to “go to where the people are,” so I also plan to attend meetings of representative groups, just to hear their interests and concerns.
UNC produces thousands of talented graduates each year, most of whom move away for a variety of reasons. Should Chapel Hill and Carrboro make more of an effort to keep homegrown talent here? If so, how?
As our town becomes more and more unaffordable, our population becomes older, more wealthy, and boringly homogenous. We should definitely make Chapel Hill a place where young people want to, and can afford to, settle down, and where our own children can afford to come home to live. Young people bring vibrancy, babies and economic creativity to a city.
Luckily, this is a win-win-win-win area of local decision making, as the things that we need to do for the Town’s climate resiliency, economic sustainability, equity and environmental protection, are also the things that will make Chapel Hill a place where young people will want, and can afford, to live. A recent @Realtors poll showed that 90% of Millennials and Gen Z would pay a premium to live in a neighborhood where they can easily walk to parks, shops and restaurants, and that people in walkable communities are more likely to be very satisfied with their quality of life.
This kind of walkable place is what our Town’s plans are designed to achieve. Achieving these goals will require more density, which will bring down housing costs. It will require comprehensive transit and greenways, which will also protect green space. And it will generate small businesses in the areas where people walk, roll, and bike, which will add fun destinations, create vibrancy and localize the economy.
We need to make Chapel Hill a place where people will still want to, and can afford to, live in 50 years. To do that, we need to set off down that path now..