CHAPEL HILL — Being elected to the Town Council brings a lot of responsibilities and challenges, but incumbent Council member Ed Harrison said he enjoys the job.
You do the job, you listen to the people and you represent their concerns, Harrison, 62, said. You let them know how to get help, and you keep them informed about what’s happening around town, he said.
“I think government is what (former President) Jimmy Carter said, a government is as good as its people,” he said. “That why I tell people what’s going on, because I think we’re a good government because of the people we have in Chapel Hill.”
During the past 12 years, Harrison has become the go-to member on local and regional transit and environmental issues. He is running this year against eight other candidates for four Town Council seats.
Early voting starts Thursday; the general election is Nov. 5.
Harrison, a South Carolina native, grew up in a car-free home in New York. He was 6 when his mom taught him to cross the street and wait with other kids for the bus. He moved on to trains, and today, Harrison rides his bike around town and to meetings.
Chapel Hill Transit is a much better-run system now than it used to be, he said.
“They’ve really refined their planning, and I think the money’s going to be used well,” he said.
The town, UNC and Carrboro are paying more for transit because of state and federal cuts. They’re starting to plan their financial future, but fare-free service isn’t going anywhere, he said.
“When you bring that up with the university, they say we’re out of here if you (end) fare-free,” he said.
A vehicle registration tax and half-cent sales tax that voters approved last year are paying for more bus service and light-rail line studies, he said. In roughly 15 years, the 17-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Durham will replace buses on N.C. 54, freeing them to serve people elsewhere, he said.
“UNC is not getting rid of employees,” Harrison said. “That campus is going to fill out all that it can. At some point in history, Carolina North is going to get built.”
Light rail also will bring more height, people and offices to stations in the N.C. 54 corridor, one of six areas identified for development in the 2020 Plan for town growth. Central West – the Estes Drive-Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard area – will make the first report to the Town Council in November.
The town’s commercial development and tax revenues will be restricted by state annexation laws and limits on surrounding rural land, Harrison said. He declined to speculate how many stories might be built across town. It varies by the situation and the topography, he said.
The Franklin hotel and 140 West Franklin are tall buildings that fit into their surroundings because of upper floor step-backs and landscaping, he said. The East 54 development was a learning experience, he said.
“We’re starting to get very demanding (after East 54) that people should show us what it looks like,” he said.
Single-family housing needs another look, too, Harrison said. County residential building permits have fallen in the past decade; the town issued only a handful of new home construction permits last year, he said.
Development’s effects on the town’s low-lying areas can be mitigated with the right kind of stormwater controls, he said. The drainage systems aren’t designed to handle the unusual amount of rain this summer that caused damaging floods, he said.
The town is trying a second time to buy several flooded Camelot Village Apartments buildings with federal money, but the reality is that will remove more affordable rentals from the local market, he said.
The council will begin to talk in earnest tonight, Oct. 16, about affordable rental housing when a committee shares its plan for finding the land and funding construction. It could take a while, which is a problem given the short timeline for a nonprofit developer’s proposed housing project on town-owned property off Legion Road, he said.
A voter-approved bond to pay for housing would be easier than a tax increase, Harrison said. Land is his biggest concern, because the town doesn’t have much and what it has isn’t large, he said. It’s too early to speculate on the future of roughly a dozen town properties that could be sold or reused, he said.