The seven major party candidates seeking two seats on the Charlottesville City Council met at a forum Wednesday to demonstrate whether they have the right stuff to advance Charlottesville’s goal of being “a green city.”
Five Democrats and two Republicans gathered at a forum moderated by the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club. In all, 11 organizations with interests in local environmental and transportation issues co-sponsored the event and crafted four questions given in advance to the candidates.
“The questions people were most interested in hearing about were their top environmental priorities, their transportation priorities, … how the city can encourage recycling and reuse … and how they would promote healthy living in Charlottesville,” said moderator Jessica Gephart.
Gephart, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, moved to Charlottesville two years ago and serves as the political chair of the local Sierra Club.
“I think that when it comes to environmental issues, city planning and transit, a lot of important issues come into play at the local level and city council can influence that policy,” she said.
When asked about their highest environmental priority, the candidates offered a range of responses including clean water, green building practices, less development, and more accommodation of bicycles.
Republican Mike Farruggio, a city police sergeant, said his top priority would be “to address pollution in creeks and rivers.” He said the Stormwater Utility Fee approved by city council in April was an admission of 30 years of neglect.
“As elected officials, our responsibility is to properly manage our assets,” Farruggio said encouraging a more proactive approach to maintaining stormwater and sewer infrastructure.
Democrat Bob Fenwick, a local builder, encouraged the audience of about 75 people to read the city council’s vision hanging on the wall.
“These environmental policies would play a part in any decision that would come before me,” he said. “I am an environmentalist. I think most of you know me from clearing the Rock Hill garden or protecting McIntire Park.”
Democrat Melvin Grady, a public school teacher in Charlottesville, said his top environmental priority would be a focus on “education and awareness.”
“We need to encourage the use of solar panels, the purchase of energy efficient vehicles by the city and individuals, and the use of green roof tops on new and existing buildings,” Grady said.
Adam Lees, a University of Virginia graduate student, said council needed to challenge the development community.
“Runaway development could completely take away a city’s promise,” Lees said. “We need to incorporate greener design elements into our development polices. We shouldn’t allow houses to be built right on top of each other so they flood each other’s yards.”
Incumbent Councilor and Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos said her main environmental priority was affordable living choices.
“By enabling more workers in the city to be able to afford to live in the city, we will reduce the need for new roads, reduce air pollution and improve the quality of life,” Szakos said.
Charles L. "Buddy" Weber, a lawyer and chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Committee, also attacked the new stormwater fee, which he called a “rain tax.”
“My priority is to ensure money collected from the rain tax is actually used to reduce pollutants entering the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “Our priority should be clean water, not a slush fund for other city council adventures.”
Democrat Wes Bellamy, an Albemarle High School teacher and founder of Helping Young People Evolve, said his approach to the environment included building a sense of pride in the community.
“I would also like to improve our bike system and put in new bike lanes,” Bellamy said. “Riding a bike contributes zero pollutants and it burns no non-renewable fuels.”
Another question probed how the candidates would prioritize the use of limited transportation funds.
Fenwick called for city council to “lower the speed limit to 25 mph across the city.” He said the U.S. 250 Bypass and Fifth Street Extended should be excluded. He said funds should also be used to encourage biking and walking.
“Building more roads is not the answer,” Grady said. “We need to encourage more carpooling and bike ridership.”
Lees said the best use of transportation funds would be adding a garbage can and recycling bin at every bus stop. Szakos pointed out there are low cost and high cost options.
“We need to find creative ways to slow down traffic on residential streets,” Szakos said. “Other things cost a lot, like transit and bus routes. We need to fund transit effectively and expand it, including a bike/pedestrian bridge across the Rivanna River.”
Weber called for specific goals to be set for the transit system.
“If [the goal is] to move people, it needs to be economical, on time, and a viable alternative to driving,” Weber said.
Farruggio said he favored a transportation agenda that would reduce use of single-occupancy vehicles, but he warned of unintended consequences.
“Some want to raise parking fines and others want to make driving so difficult, it’s like a punishment,” Farruggio said. “I don’t think those tired solutions will work. I don’t want to see us make it so hard that people begin to go living and shopping and moving into other counties.”
While the Democratic field will be narrowed in a June 11 primary to two nominees, this was the first opportunity for the recently nominated Republicans to differentiate themselves in a candidate forum. The Democrats hold all City Council seats today.
One reason Gephart said both party’s candidates were invited is because the Sierra Club was uncertain whether they would hold another forum closer to the November general election.
“The Sierra Club is non-partisan and we didn’t want to come off as only spending our time with one of the parties,” Gephart said. “We also wanted a broader range of perspectives on environmental issues.”