All seven candidates for Charlottesville City Council appeared at a forum for the first time together Wednesday evening. About 45 people gathered in the City Council Chambers for the forum sponsored by the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club.
Democratic candidates Bob Fenwick, Heather Hill and Amy Laufer appeared alongside independent candidates Nancy Carpenter, Paul Long, Nikuyah Walker and Dale Woodson to answer questions related to environmental issues facing the city.
“The Sierra Club is obviously interested in environmental issues, and I think we’re really interested in getting people’s opinions on environmental issues, so hopefully we’ll flesh out some things tonight,” Elizabeth Delaney, political chair of the Piedmont Group, said before the forum.
The candidates received the first four questions in advance. Delaney moderated the event and posed the first question to the candidates, asking what they believe is the most significant environmental issue facing Charlottesville and how they would address it.
“I think we actually are the biggest environmental challenge — we’re consumers [and] polluters, and the way we live destroys the environment,” said city School Board member Amy Laufer.
Laufer said she is interested in banning plastic bags but said Virginia’s Dillon Rule — which places greater power in the state government — prevents the city from banning them outright — although she suggested that plastic bags could be banned at city events.
“We need to advance access and efficiency of our transportation systems, as well as our bike and pedestrian infrastructure,” said Heather Hill, president of the North Downtown Residents Association. Hill also said zoning should encourage housing density that integrates into existing neighborhoods and is in proximity to work and shopping destinations in order to lower car dependency.
“Poverty can exacerbate environmental issues,” said Nancy Carpenter, Rose Hill Neighborhood Association president. Carpenter said she would support increased investment in the city’s public transportation system.
“I’ve been in Charlottesville since 2008, and it seems like every year there’s been this horrific story of somebody that’s gotten killed crossing a road because the bus system doesn’t go there, they don’t go in bidirectional ways, and so they are forced, because they don’t have access to vehicles, to walk where it is extremely dangerous,” Carpenter said.
Nikuyah Walker also highlighted poverty as an environmental issue and touched on redevelopment plans for the Strategic Investment Area, located on 330 acres south of the Downtown Mall.
“In the current SIA, when you’re talking about preserving green space, building houses, making sure it’s market rate and affordable, and all those units at Friendship Court, 600 units, where are the kids going to play?” Walker said. “Are those green spaces going to be preserved with that many units present?”
“I think the most significant environmental issue facing Charlottesville is traffic and congestion,” Long said. “We desperately need a public transportation authority in the Charlottesville area.”
Long was not alone — throughout the forum, several candidates also touched on what they see as a need for a regional transit authority.
In 2009, the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation that would allow for such an authority, but it did not provide authority for a voter referendum to ask whether taxes should be raised to fund it. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is studying how Charlottesville Area Transit, JAUNT and the University Transit System could better work together.
Dale Woodson said he would like to see an expanded use of solar energy.
“Right now, there is a lot of exciting things happening with solar power,” Woodson said. “If we can incentivize landlords and people building new properties to add solar panels, it could help.”
Incumbent Bob Fenwick said education about everyday impacts on the environment is an important issue.
“I remember when I was growing up, my mother used to have a little scrub brush, and she scrubbed all the vegetables and I never understood why she did that — and it was because of the pesticides, the herbicides,” Fenwick said.
Candidates also were asked about an optimal sustainable population size for the city.
“It is unrealistic to say Charlottesville is not going to grow,” Hill said. “Trying to limit the city’s population has the potential to hurt the economic vitality of Charlottesville.” She said officials will need to plan well for increases in density.
Carpenter cited statistics from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia that estimated Charlottesville’s population at 49,071 people in 2016. This is an increase from 2010, when the U.S. Census measured the population at 43,475.
“I think, with technology and investment in infrastructure, we can address the issues of population growth within the confines of our boundaries,” Carpenter said.
When asked about opportunities for cooperation between the city and Albemarle County, several candidates cited the need for more collaboration on transportation and connectivity issues.
Candidates also highlighted what they saw as the need for more respect in interactions between officials.
“My suggestion for issues across the board with city-county relations would be to remove the egos out of the room,” Walker said. “I see a lot of the egos, and I think that prevents us from making decisions that would be beneficial and healthy for all of us.”
Audience members also could submit questions; other topics addressed during the forum included the use of synthetic pesticides and efforts to support renewable energy.
Fenwick, Hill, and Laufer will compete in the Democratic primary on June 13. The three candidates are vying for two sports on the ballot in the November general election.
Kristin Szakos announced earlier this year that she would not be seeking re-election. There are no Republican candidates in the race.
In a Facebook message sent Wednesday night, Kenneth Jackson said he would announce his campaign as an independent at 11 a.m. Friday at Tonsler Park.
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