We’re in the midst of campaign season in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. And while some like the good, the bad, and the ugly of elections, there are others who wish we had another way to choose who represents us in local offices.

But one thing that is really great about campaign season is that we see candidates focus on communicating their ideas to people who aren’t normally paying attention. Here are two things we’ve noticed that we really like.

Catherine Fray gets why planning is at the heart of what makes a community

While Catherine Fray has never held political office before, in the two campaign forums we’ve seen it would be easy to confuse them for an incumbent. After serving more than a decade on the planning commission, and co-chairing the Carrboro Connects comprehensive plan, Catherine is incredibly knowledgeable about the town. Even better, they’re great at communicating why ordinary people should care about it, not just “nerds” (as they call themself) who see town planning as a super advanced form of Legos.

We see this in a recent campaign video Catherine made.

Over a series of overhead shots, Catherine discusses why they love Carrboro, and why housing is critical to keeping it a special place:

In my neighborhood, queer folks like me and my wife are part of an international multi-generational, racially diverse community that enriches all our lives. And we’re grateful for the past choices that have made Carrboro, a town where that’s possible.

But if we want to keep being that kind of town, we’re going to have to make some choices about our planning so that folks can keep calling this place home. It’s not a secret that our town is in demand. People want to live in this inclusive environment that we’ve created, but our housing supply just isn’t keeping up. We need to be bolder, to make it possible for folks to keep finding homes here and to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prepare for our changing climate.

The “trick” of the video is that every home pictured in the ad is multi-family, including some housing that is no longer allowed under town zoning rules. If we want Carrboro to be a town that attracts people from all backgrounds, and to serve as a haven for people who are not accepted in many communities, we need to ensure that we’re building enough housing to meet our needs while protecting the environment at the same time.  

Jon Mitchell is a thoughtful candidate for town council

Of all of the candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council, Jon Mitchell is running one of the quieter campaigns. He’s performed admirably in the candidate forums, and even earned a rare applause line at this week’s forum with the UNC Young Democrats (“You will be able to bike to Trader Joe’s without risking your lives” is cheer-worthy when you’re speaking to students who live in food deserts).

But, unlike other candidates, Mitchell has not been very visible online. He hasn’t assembled a large campaign staff. He hasn’t boasted about his endorsements, or made endless pushes for donations.

Instead, Mitchell has been keeping a blog. And on this blog he has written a handful of posts that clearly state what’s at stake in the election. Here’s a few points he makes that are worth your consideration:

The Complete Communities framework is about moving Chapel Hill away from car-oriented development

A number of people running for office, most notably Jess Anderson, who’s running for mayor, have made Complete Communities a centerpiece of their campaign. Complete Communities is a framework, a set of boxes to tick and tools to evaluate whether a proposed development is good or can be improved. Why does this matter? Here’s what Mitchell says in his blog post:

The Complete Community framework (“CC,” for short) is fundamentally about moving Chapel Hill away from car-oriented development and toward walkable, bikeable development. Car-oriented development is designed to maximize the convenience of cars; repelling pedestrians is a by-product. Think of a hypothetical new townhouse development with two-car garages everywhere you look, lots of concrete and asphalt, no significant tree canopy, no useable green space, no nearby restaurants or parks, no reason to leave your residence except by car. Now think of the same townhouse development with inviting porches and stoops in the front and one-car garages behind, walking paths overhung by shade trees, a central green with a play structure and/or community garden, and a coffee shop and fitness center a short walk away by greenway. That’s more or less the difference between car-oriented development and the CC vision.

As Mitchell notes, car-oriented development is the default in the United States, and doing anything else requires an “unusually well-organized and committed effort to transcend it.” Because Chapel Hill politics has historically been divided between those who are willing to take a half a loaf and those who prefer no loaf at all, we end up getting development that no one is particularly happy with.

The town council is learning from past mistakes

Mitchell became involved in town planning because he wanted to understand why the town was approving so many apartment buildings around town. In another post, he addresses this question specifically, noting that the town council is trying to make difficult tradeoffs.

More than a few people think that some recent development is so bad that the Council must be on the take. I assure you it is not. The Town has made some missteps over the years, which is why we now have a new planning framework. I believe we are getting onto the right track.

[C]ity planning involves nuanced trade-offs. Abstract values and ideas only go so far. The rest is about detailed planning and execution – what I call “effective government.”

In the end, better development is an iterative process. Each new project is an opportunity to learn from the past and deliver better outcomes.

The town council is changing its approach to development. This election is about whether we continue on the path we already started.

Adam Searing and his slate of candidates are running on the premise that this is a “change” election in which they need to be elected to stop all the town council’s actions in their tracks. But Mitchell offers another perspective, noting that the council is currently in the early stages of changing how it approaches development:

But what about when current leadership self-identifies longstanding problems (perhaps not entirely of its making) and begins to correct them?

That’s another kind of change election – an election about whether to continue, and even accelerate, an internal reform process that’s already begun. It happens to be the situation we’re in.

This post describes how the Town’s approach to growth is becoming more discerning, why some candidates seem to be avoiding the topic, and why that’s concerning. Spoiler: it’s because process changes don’t work unless we stick with them for more than six months.

In the past, Chapel Hill town politics have been stymied by an unwillingness to address the challenges we face. We fight about the small things while big changes take place all around us. The current council is trying to solve these challenges, fully aware that it will take some time to put them into place. Mitchell understands the significance of these changes, and is running for council to help see them through.

Of all the candidates running for town council in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Jon Mitchell and Catherine Fray are probably the most committed to focusing on town planning. While all town council members weigh in on development, having someone who is primarily interested in planning will really benefit our communities as they grow.

Make your 2023 municipal election voting plan

Beginning with the 2023 municipal elections, North Carolina voters will be required to show photo ID when they check in to vote. Voters who vote by mail will be asked to include a photocopy of an acceptable ID when returning their ballot by mail.

Check your voter registration now. You can look it up here. This is really important particularly if you’ve moved in the past year.

Make a plan to vote during early voting.
This ensures that if there’s a problem, you can sort it out. Early voting runs from October 19-November 4. Here is the complete schedule of voting sites, dates, and times for Orange County.

Read about the new voter ID requirements. Every vote counts in North Carolina, and this information must be shared early and often. If you know of people who have just moved here, or students, or new neighbors, please let them know about registering and the voter ID requirements.

Read all of Triangle Blog Blog’s 2023 election coverage

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...