Amy Ryan is running for Town Council in Chapel Hill. Ryan was elected to the Town Council in 2019, and has served on advisory boards and commissions over the past 20 years. She currently serves as the council liaison to several boards, including the Historic District Commission; the Parks and Rec board, and the Stormwater Management Board.
We interviewed Ryan about her campaign and her time on council.
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What are your focus areas for the council race?
Council has done great work in the last four years. We’ve asked tough questions, listened to our community, weighed difficult tradeoffs, and taken some important steps forward. My goal for the next four years is to extend and solidify these gains to prepare Chapel Hill to meet the challenges of the future.
For this election, my three areas of focus are:
This is a big topic, from developing a vision for our future to writing the ordinances that will let us make that vision a reality. We took a huge step forward when we created and adopted the holistic Complete Communities framework. This roadmap to our future keeps our focus where it belongs – building a sustainable, connected, inclusive community.
We still have lots of policy decisions to make to implement this vision – how to use our zoning tools effectively, how to make sure we’re getting community benefits (affordable housing, greenways, environmental protection, public space) in new developments, how to make best use of our advisory boards.
I’ve been working on these issues in Chapel Hill for the last 20 years, and I really want to be at the table to bring that work to fruition, using my expertise in land use, design, and planning best practices. I’m the experienced detail person who knows the planning issues inside and out; I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and collaborating with staff, Council, and the community to make sure we get it right.
Chapel Hill has long valued its trees, streams, and natural spaces. They help maintain water quality, prevent heat islands, mitigate flooding, and preserve biodiversity. At the same time, we value building a walkable community that decreases automobile use and the climate impacts cars bring. Our task over the next four years will be to balance these interests, preserving the important green spaces in town AND building in smart ways on the remaining land. The healthy community of the future needs both.
Because of conservative budgeting during COVID, past reluctance to raise taxes, and a history of short-term budget planning, Council found itself this year with a lot of catching up to do to execute on our core mission of providing essential town services, like updating the facilities our firefighters need, replacing aging fleet vehicles, and making staff compensation fair and regionally competitive. At the same time, we have ambitious goals for investing in our community – an Everywhere to Everywhere greenway network, a robust transit system, affordable housing, improved park facilities. And we know that we have to be smart about paying for it all.
Our FY 2023/24 budget reflects the first year of meaningful five-year planning, and it makes significant steps in addressing all these issues. We’re also about to begin discussions about our next round of bond funding – for affordable housing, parks and greenways, and capital investment. The town has maintained a strong financial position (as our AAA bond ratings demonstrate), and we’re on an even better path now to insure a healthy, responsible, and sustainable financial future.
What are three things that you believe the town could be doing better?
Not coincidentally, these are related to the three items in the first question!
To create the community we want and attract the kind of developers who will build it for us, we need to move away from the old control-intensive model of review to one that’s more streamlined, legislating standards where state law allows, retaining Council review where it matters, and creating clear guidelines for achieving the Complete Community vision.
Jennifer Keesmaat, the planning consultant on the Complete Communities project, told us: “First, decide what you’ll protect.” The town took an important step forward in environmental protection with the establishment of the rural buffer in the 1980s. Now our task is to bring that same deliberate intent to the town itself, creating strong protections for tree canopy, stream buffers, steep slopes, and wildlife corridors. Then we can fulfill our other environmental obligation to the future — to build in smarter, denser, more connected ways on the land that’s outside these specific areas, creating a healthy, sustainable town for the generations to come.
Long-range fiscal planning
We’ve made a good start in reversing old, short-sighted ways of planning our financial future, and it’s crucial that we continue to make progress. We want to maintain a high standard of essential services and be proactive in anticipating capital needs. And we need to balance paying for essential services with our aspirational spending – as we’re making sure we’re being fair to taxpayers.
What are the things you think the town currently is doing right?
Council has been working with a consultant to help us formulate our next five-year affordable housing strategy, and he tells us we’re really doing things right in tackling this difficult issue. The results since 2018 speak for themselves – 1,055 units of affordable housing preserved or produced, more than $21 million invested, and $5 million from UNC-Health to provide seed money for a new affordable housing loan fund.
Just last week, Council gave the thumbs-up to the new strategy. The numbers involved – the extent of the need and the amount of resources required — are sobering, and we’re going to have to be smart and creative as we work to achieve our goals. We have an exceptional housing staff, and with their leadership I’m confident our success will continue.
Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. With the adoption of our Climate Action Plan during my first term in office, Chapel Hill has re-emerged as a leader in the Triangle on environmental issues. We now have a climate/resiliency staff of three and a detailed actionable plan for making real progress toward our goal of using 100% renewable energy by 2050. Our organization is electrifying its fleet, switching to money- and energy-saving LED lights in town facilities, sponsoring a tree-planting program, and implementing a variety of policies to help green our community — reducing reliance on cars, putting smart land-use policies in place, encouraging energy-efficient buildings, and offering new greenway transportation options.
Investing in downtown
We’ve got two important, interconnected goals for revitalizing downtown: to bring new businesses and new workers there, and do some good urban placemaking to make it a real gathering place for our community.
To that end, we’re partnering with UNC on Downtown Together to create an innovation hub to grow new businesses and provide them with a home in Chapel Hill. We’re investing in infrastructure, like the Rosemary Deck, to consolidate parking and spur redevelopment of underused parcels. We have a grant program in place to help support existing businesses as change comes to downtown. And we’re leveraging UNC’s leadership in life sciences to attract redevelopment and wet lab space that will provide increased tax revenue, good jobs, and hundreds of new workers downtown every day to support our local businesses.
We’re also looking at taking over Franklin Street from NCDOT, so we can build a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape and exciting public places for everyone — students, families, seniors, young professionals, alumni, and tourists. And we’re working on a Downtown Mobility and Streetscape Plan that will make downtown less car-centric and a better place to work, walk, and hang out all through the year.
How has your experience on the Chapel Hill Town Council informed your decision to re-run?
Over the last four years, Council has faced significant challenges — a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, a housing crisis, a climate emergency. We’re addressing these really tough issues, and doing it well – making significant progress in affordable housing, more inclusive zoning, equity and outreach efforts, revamped and streamlined town procedures, a climate action plan, and better budgeting. As the only incumbent running, I bring years of experience with these issues – plus my passion for detail, a practical outlook, and collaborative spirit. I’ve been an effective member of the team that’s been working to find the right answers to these challenging issues – and will be effective facing the new issues that arise in coming years.
We know that feedback the Council receives does not reflect Chapel Hill’s population. How will you ensure your decision making process takes into account the perspectives of people who may not have the time or resources to attend council meetings?
As a Council member, I understand clearly that the input we get is only a slice of community opinion. I don’t use this input to “count votes” for or against a certain issue, but to understand concerns and learn why people support the options they do, so I can understand all the issues, balance interests, and make a good decision for the town as a whole.
That said, we’re always working to make sure to do a better job of hearing from all the different voices in Chapel Hill. With the help of our new DEI office, Community Connections staff, and community partners, we’re doing a better job of reaching out to people who might not traditionally get involved, who might feel unwelcome or not know how to or be able to access their government. We’re offering translation services and varying our communication methods (mail, in-person, text, social media) to reach people the way they prefer. Initiatives like the People’s Academy show residents how government works and encourage them to get involved; the Building Integrated Communities program creates relationships with our immigrant and refugee communities to support their involvement in local government.
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?
It’s great when all that talent wants to – and can – stay local. The town has been working on several initiatives, like our Downtown Together partnership with UNC, to make Chapel Hill an innovation hub in the region, which will help drive job growth and good early career opportunities for our new graduates. Economic growth will benefit as well — a strong pool of well-educated young workers itself will help draw new businesses to Chapel Hill.
Maintaining young talent here is important for our Town organization as well. The Town works hard to provide opportunities for internships in our various departments, and more and more of those talented individuals are staying to work for the town once they’ve graduated.
But jobs aren’t enough. We also have to continue our efforts to increase housing affordability and inventory, so new graduates can afford to stay in town. (New town workers have access to our employee housing program, to make it easier/possible for them to live here.) And we need to continue to focus on placemaking, especially downtown, to make Franklin Street a hub of activity all year round as another incentive to “stay local.”
We also need to do more to attract the older part of this demographic – the young thirty-somethings who are growing their careers, starting families, and putting down roots. Jobs are key here, but creating more missing middle housing stock is also important. We also need to make sure that our downtown and neighborhoods are vibrant in family-friendly ways, and that we continue to increase our investment in parks and greenways and the other recreation opportunities that appeal especially to this demographic.