Sierra Club hosts forum for Democratic hopefuls

Democratic Charlottesville City Council candidates aligned on ideas for how to address climate change at a forum this week hosted by the Sierra Club. As the five sat in Council Chambers in seats three of them could officially occupy, they complimented and riffed off each other’s shared ideas, such as increasing public transportation ridership, using compostable products and incentivizing solar energy.

When asked how they think the city should cooperate with the University of Virginia and Albemarle County in a regional transportation system that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Sena Magill suggested there should be a regional transit authority that also includes surrounding counties.

“We can’t think of ourselves as a silo anymore,” she said. “Working together is how we’re going to get through this.”

She also suggested replacing older buses with electric models.

Magill and Bob Fenwick also said there is a need for more bus shelters for riders.

“We all start to adopt each other’s ideas. We’ve all agreed that bus service is an area that needs a lot of work,” Lloyd Snook said. “In addition to buses is that we need to plan the city and the county to encourage the use of those buses.”

He also said ridership increases take time and that needs to be communicated to developers as more things are being built in the area.

Michael Payne suggested an increase in the number of Charlottesville Area Transit bus stops. He also agreed on creating a regional transit authority that could include the city, county, UVa and JAUNT. Payne said the city needs to “keep the pressure up” on advocating for transportation improvements.

Brian Pinkston reflected on how his own mindset changed concerning public transportation after he moved around for work and his education. He agreed with the other suggestions.

The one question candidates did not take a unanimous stance or build off each other on was a question about optimal population size for the city.

“My answer would be to duck the question … and the ducking of the question is this: over what time frame?” Snook said.

He then cited how the population has grown over the years, with UVa being a large influence. Snook projected another 12,000 people at the university over the next 30 years between students and staff.

“It’s a challenging question and ultimately it’s down to what our values are,” Pinkston said. “In terms of optimal, it’s probably best to think of what people value.”

He said he doesn’t think Charlottesville residents want to be like Manhattan or Alexandria, with a much higher number of people per square mile. Like Snook, he cited factors the council has no control over, like the university, in contribution to density growth.

“I think it’s really going to be thoughtfully addressing the needs in a five- to 10- to 20-year time frame working with the Planning Commission,” Pinkston said.

Magill said that as the city grows, it’s important to centralize population for less transporting of goods and better mass transit.

“This is an incredibly difficult question that I do not have a really great answer for,” she said.

Payne echoed Pinkston in terms of strategic planning for “inevitable” population growth.

“Density can in theory be a good thing for the environment if you’re discouraging urban sprawl and allowing for a more bikeable and walkable city, and you have transit that allows more people to use fewer cars,” Payne said. “The flip side is you have to have a plan for increasing population growth. You could get urban sprawl and luxury developments that are displacing people or the destruction of green space.”

Payne suggested strengthening the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department and taking an approach on the City Council that leads to long-term strategic thinking.

“You heard the phrase that we’re adopting each other’s programs,” Fenwick said. “How I yearned to hear that when I was on council. That’s an indication of the kind of cooperation that the City Council needs to have.”

A cohesively functioning council is part of Fenwick’s inspiration to run again.

He added that he thinks the city has just about “maxed out” on the population density it can handle now and suggested making special-use permits harder to obtain. Though the candidates discussed ways to enhance public transportation effectiveness and ridership, Fenwick said increased density still brings increased traffic with people using cars.

The candidates all agreed that they would support funding the Integrated Pest Management Program to eliminate herbicide applications in public parks and school grounds. Snook also said he is in favor of using goats and organic weed killers.

Other questions involved strategies to reduce the use of single-use plastics and the promotion of resilience and adaptation in the face of climate change. Candidates supported using compostable products at city events and contracting with caterers who do so, as well.

Other ideas involved updating flood maps, increased compost receptacles, updated storm sewers and infrastructure in general. Payne also suggested collecting data on changes in floodplains and stormwater runoff.

During the conversation, both Payne and Snook mentioned the Dillon Rule and how it limits local government. Payne said that it is the role of the City Council to lobby the General Assembly on the matter. Snook said that even if it can’t be completely abolished, that there’s some issues where “home rule concerns can be carved out.”

The Democratic candidates are vying for one of three party nominations in a June 11 primary. Two independent candidates also are working to get on the November ballot.