It’s Chapel Hill tradition for nearly a dozen local organizations to distribute questionnaires to candidates before local elections. And, typically, it’s the answers that need fact-checking. But The Local Reporter’s candidate questionnaire turns that on its head. Here, it’s the questions that need fact-checking.

We have written before about The Local Reporter’s close relationship with the local advocacy group Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), whose members were instrumental in launching The Local Reporter and who have continued to extend outside influence over its content through a parade of short-term editors and reporters, not to mention the paper’s board of directors. (All three were leaders in CHALT or its PAC, which is expected to play a large role in this year’s election.)

The Local Reporter’s leadership continues to promise editorial independence but the reporting shows otherwise. Recently, for example, The Local Reporter somehow neglected to run an article about Jess Anderson announcing her run for mayor, despite running an announcement for the only other candidate, CHALT-favorite Adam Searing. In response, The Local Reporter’s sixth editor issued an apology, and then left his post just a couple of days later.

The latest example of The Local Reporter’s tipping of the scales is the candidate questionnaire that the organization recently sent to all candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council. Simply put, the questions reek of CHALT. (CHALT also recently sent candidates an endorsement questionnaire, and purports to go through an endorsement process, even though they interviewed candidates they plan to endorse back in May, have started to hold and promote events with their slate, and have started to pass out handouts touting those candidates paid for by their PAC.)

Back to The Local Reporter.

A key problem is that the seven questions commit the candidates to providing answers that assume CHALT’s framing of the questions even though each purports to be a neutral statement of journalistic facts. That’s misleading. Also, some of the facts stated in the question are just wrong.

Let’s start with question 1 

In 1985, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County adopted the Comprehensive Land Use Plan that discourages sprawl, conserves rural areas in the county, and protects watersheds. Under what circumstances would you want the Council to change this agreement and consider extending city water and sewer service into the rural buffer? Explain your answer.

Let’s correct some simple facts. First, the plan is called the “Joint Planning Area Land Use Plan.” Second, it was adopted in 1986 and amended in 1987, and multiple times thereafter. Third, the only watershed that’s identified in the plan is the University Lake watershed, which protects OWASA’s primary source for drinking water, so it has little to do with watershed issues or flooding within Chapel Hill.

But besides those factual inaccuracies, this question also misses much of the nuances of the rural buffer.

The rural buffer is complicated and it cannot be talked about without also discussing its impact on housing affordability. The agreement with the rural buffer was that Chapel Hill and Carrboro would grow within their borders so we could preserve the buffer and ample land. If we don’t honor the implicit agreement of building up rather than out, we are simply creating other problems. We can’t afford to have electeds who only care about an issue from one angle; these are nuanced topics, and require nuanced analysis. 

Onto question 2

Chapel Hill taxpayers will experience an eleven percent increase in taxes this year which will continue at this rate for several years. Do our budgets prioritize core town services? What can the Town do differently to avoid these steep tax increases?

The tax increase is a little under 10% (from 52.5 cents/100 dollars to 57.2 cents/100 dollars), and the property tax bill includes several other taxes, so tax bills won’t be increasing by that much either.  Also the phrase “which will continue at this rate for several years” is completely fabricated. But it might be more appropriate, as Tammy Grubb noted in her well-reported piece about the budget, to say that “the town has only raised taxes in five of the last 14 years, for a cumulative tax rate increase of 6.68 cents since 2009, or less than 1% each year.” 

Question 5 asks:

What do you want to see developed on the Legion Community Park property? Affordable housing, just a park, a combination of these or something else entirely.

Here TLR is once again adopting CHALT’s framing to bias an answer, a far cry from the claim that The Local Reporter is committed to “standards for editorial independence.” There is no such entity as Legion Community Park. There is the site formerly owned by American Legion Post No. 6 which the Town purchased in 2016 for several purposes, including the use of a portion of a site for a park, but there is no park. That’s why it’s known by the town, the News and Observer, and ourselves as the “American Legion site” or the “Legion site” or the “Legion property.”

If you search the town website for the phrase “Legion Community Park,” there’s only one result–the title of a September 2022 petition to the Town by CHALT steering committee members Virginia Gray and Julie McClintock entitled “Request for a Public Forum about the Legion Community Park.” Search Google, and you’ll also find that the term “Legion Community Park” is used by an advocacy group founded by Richard Mitchell, and a guest column written by council candidate David Adams in—you guessed it!—The Local Reporter in November 2022. (Here’s our piece factchecking CHALT on this topic.)

The town voted last December to preserve a quarter of the land for affordable housing and keep the rest—27 acres—for a world-class park. Combined with Ephesus Park directly next door, this leaves us with a 38 acre park that includes active recreation, such as pickleball courts and soccer fields, and passive green space, including 8.6 acres of forest. (As envisioned, what the current Town Council voted for will be bigger than almost every existing park in town.)

And question 6:

Seeking owner-owned housing for lower-income people has consumed community discussion for several years. Yet, new development has yielded only market-rate apartments and a handful of for-sale residences except for town-sponsored projects. What will be achieved by the recent text changes to allow multiple-family housing in previous single-family zoning districts?

First, the premise of this question is not correct. Community Home Trust and Habitat for Humanity have successfully built for-sale new residences for lower-income people and are in the process of building more. (Community Home Trust was just selected to receive a highly competitive 9% Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) award for the Tanyard Branch Trace development.) 

Affordable housing is a very significant topic. But it encompasses many different types of housing—the affordable housing report that Council received just last week noted that almost 70 percent of renters here are cost burdened, meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing. Among renters earning less than $50,000, 88 percent are cost burdened. According to the plan, there is a gap between the number of rental units needed and supplied at all income levels (including those earning $100,000), but especially for lower-income renters.

We searched The Local Reporter’s archives for stories that mention “affordable housing” and looked through all of the 40 articles on the first page of results. There are only two mentions at all of owner-occupied housing for lower-income households, both in columns by Linda Brown, one in December 2021, one in May 2022. It will not be shocking to learn that Linda Brown is a CHALT steering committee member and runs the organization’s Facebook page. On NextDoor, she frequently posts pieces from the paper and asks for donations for The Local Reporter.

For CHALT to ask this question would be just fine. But for The Local Reporter to ask this question and claim it is a topic dominating community discourse is odd. (In recent years, CHALT has advocated heavily against owner-occupied housing in developments like Habitat’s Weaver’s Grove community and on Jay Street.)

The Local Reporter put out no public call for questions, yet their questions mirror CHALT’s framing around important issues. Typically, candidate questionnaires are written by an editorial staff—without any input from the board of directors of a paper, or any outside influences. Allowing biased framing and inaccurate questions again raises questions about this paper’s editorial independence.

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Geoff Green, AICP lives in Chapel Hill. In his day job he's a practicing urban planner; in his spare time he rides his electric bike around town and advocates for improved facilities so that everyone can...