SP Council, Mayor Candidates Outline Issues
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Southern Pines mayoral and council candidates shared their views on everything from long-range planning to fracking at a forum Thursday night.
The League of Women Voters conducted the forum at the Penick Village House. League member Carolyn Mealing moderated the forum.
She presented two questions prepared by the league and submitted to all candidates in advance, then asked impromptu questions from the audience.
Taking part were council members David McNeill and Chris Smithson, who want to succeed retiring Mayor Mike Haney, and council candidates James R. "Jim" Simeon, Marsh Smith, Fred C. Walden and David Woodruff. Walden is the only incumbent running.
The questions were first posed to the council candidates and then the two running for mayor.
The first question dealt with the town's new comprehensive long-range plan.
"It's something we can use for the future," Walden said. "I think it's a very good plan."
Woodruff said he agreed "with the public" and opposed the Tyler's Ridge development. He said the federal government has spent millions trying to keep development away from the airport area and added that the town already has an abundance of apartments.
"I thought the land-use plan process was a good start," Smith said. However, he said the old plan had been in place since 1988, and there is a need for updating to keep it as "a living document."
Simeon said he supports the plan, which provides town leaders with "a positive guide" in dealing with critical problems facing Southern Pines today.
Smithson said he said loves the land-use plan and called it "a great start."
"It will affect Southern Pines for years and will protect and enhance our downtown and protect our resources," he said.
McNeil said it is "a guide for elected and appointed officials" but needs to be updated periodically. The UDO must also be updated to remove conflicts with other ordinances, he said.
The candidates also were asked what they felt were the two most critical problems facing the town.
Smith said the town must develop an economy that doesn't destroy quality of life.
"We do not need to cover farms and forests with shingles and asphalt," he said.
He urged caution in dealing with a U.S. 1 bypass proposal that could cut through "Horse Country."
Simeon called for "positive economic development to allow us to maintain positive and unique features of our community." He said the low tax rate should be maintained, something that can be done by increasing areas that produce income.
He said the new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is needed and should be developed "in a collaborative fashion" with the public.
Walden cited water as a critical issue that should be "online" by next year, and responsible growth and development as the town's other major issue.
Woodruff said maintaining a viable downtown business district is a critical need to continue attracting tourists.
Citing a need for better promotion, he said many visitors to the last Women's U.S. Open at Pine Needles were unaware that they were not in Pinehurst.
His second critical issue was protecting and maintaining a safe and adequate water supply, an issue tied with concern about the redrawing of county district lines and the loss of representation "in Carthage."
McNeill said the impact of the national economy on town coffers is an issue that has had a severe effect on the tax base. He said the town needs to address this issue to find funds for another fire station to serve the northern area and to keep fire insurance rates low.
Selection of a route for a new U.S. 1 corridor was named as the other strategic need.
Smithson said the town cannot allow "incompatible" growth and the "outdated and cumbersome UDO" must be overhauled. His other critical need is economic strength. He said the town must embrace technology, citing as an example a need to use remote read water meters to improve efficiency.
On questions asked from the audience, all six candidates more or less agreed that the issue of fracking (hydraulic fracturing as a means of extracting natural gas from shale deposits) needs much more study to determine its safety. But, because the shale deposits are located in the northern tip of the county, this is an issue not likely to have serious economic or environmental impact on Southern Pines.
Answers varied about means of financing municipal needs.
Woodruff said he would start by cutting back on expenses. "We must learn to live within our means," he said.
Walden warned that cutting expenses goes only so far, and the town has been cutting back for a number of years despite "built-in inflation" over which town leaders have no control.
Smithson said Southern Pines has been able to keep its tax rate "revenue neutral" so far but reminded members of the audience that residents "enjoy a high level of service."
Smith said the town could save money by curtailing costly types of growth. He said a new fire station would not be needed had the town not allowed growth sprawl.
Simeon said the town must carefully study each need before making a decision about cutting costs by reducing service.
"It is an automatic decision you can't make without analyzing the need," he said.
McNeill recalled that for the past two years the council has directed the staff to prepare a budget without a tax hike.
A question about the absence of a woman on the existing council or among the candidates drew humorous and varied responses. All were in favor of more participation by women.
Walden said Southern Pines has had women as mayor and council members in the past and added that he would welcome women candidates.
"Yes, we need all kinds of people," Smithson responded.
"First of all, it would improve the looks of this group," McNeill said.
Woodruff repeated his call for balance on the board and added that "this group has gotten way too young."
Simeon agreed that diversity is needed.
Smith said simply: "Absolutely."
Other questions focused on contract procedures, encouraging more young people to live here, and the town's unique image.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story