Saturday, March 2, 2024

Election 2022: Rob Zapple seeks reelection as a NHC commissioner

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democrat incumbent Rob Zapple is running for one of two seats available on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners this coming election. He will be up against LeAnn Pierce (R), as well as candidates Tom Toby (R) and Travis Robinson (D).

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate appearing on ballots in the tri-county region, ahead of the Nov. 8, 2022, election.

PCD asked candidates to address issues pertinent to the county, from affordable housing to school safety, taxes to population growth.

Zapple’s stances on issues are discussed below. All answers are included in full; the candidate’s opinions and statements are not a reflection of Port City Daily. Responses are edited only for grammar, spelling and clarity.

The paywall is dropped on candidate questionnaires to help voters make informed decisions ahead of Election Day.

To prepare, here are a few dates for readers to keep in mind:

  • Absentee ballots will be available Sept. 9 and have a Nov. 1 deadline.
  • Registration to vote will open until Oct. 14; afterward, according to the state board of elections, same-day registration only will be available during one-stop early voting. 
  • Early voting begins Oct. 20 and remains open through Nov. 5 (3:30 p.m.).
  • Election Day polls open Nov. 8, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Locations to vote early in New Hanover County include CFCC Health Sciences and Learning Center (415 2nd. St.), Carolina Beach Municipal Building (1121 Lake Park Blvd.), CFCC North Campus (4500 Blue Clay Rd.), Northeast Library/Board of Elections (1241-A Military Cutoff Rd.), and the Senior Center (2222 S. College Rd.).

Once early voting closes, voters will need to go to the location listed on their voter registration card.

To see a sample ballot for the upcoming election, fill in voter registration info here.

Port City Daily (PCD) Name three top priorities facing the county currently and how you propose to address them.
Rob Zapple (RZ): 1. Managing growth in New Hanover County; 2. Protecting our unique coastal environment; 3. Affordable housing; 4. Providing adequate funding for a high quality and high  performing public education system, Pre-K through Community College.

PCD: What is the current board of commissioners getting right? Wrong?
RZ: The current board works well with our county manager and executive leadership team in providing our community with forward-looking initiatives that touch the lives of every citizen in New Hanover County. Good examples of this leadership over the past few years include: 

The emergency response effort to Covid-19, the creation of the Pandemic Operations Department (including the hiring of an epidemiologist dedicated to NHC for a quicker response to any infectious disease outbreak or community health threat).

The creation of the stormwater utility that allows our engineering department to identify and address the causes of persistent flooding throughout NHC – and dedicates crews of workers to implement solutions.

The creation of the community plan to address affordable housing in NHC. This plan commits the county to spending $15 million over the next five years and hire new, dedicated staff through our zoning and planning department, to seek out programs and initiatives that provide affordable housing solutions and create the best results — while being held fully accountable.

Providing funding through a variety of sources to address community violence. This program funds the addition of mental health and behavioral health counselors and therapists in our public school system and provides a dedicated school nurse in all of our schools.

The initiative also provides funding for the creation of Port City United, a program based on the evidence-based Cure Violence model that brings members of communities that are underserved and have a history of violence into a new county department, to work within those communities to connect citizens to existing services and programs and to identify and divert violent crime at the “street level.” PCU also creates a new line of direct communication for citizens to engage and access their local health and human services departments through community resource coordination.

PCD: Are there any county departments you consider underfunded or overlooked that would receive more attention if you were elected? Explain.
RZ: As an elected official, I, along with my fellow commission members and our county manager, have tried to identify and correct any inequities within our county departments. 

The addition of the diversity, equity and inclusion department, created in 2020 and led by Ms. Linda Thompson, has provided another avenue of communication for all of our employees and helped to surface many issues before they have become problems. 

PCD: Tell us how you would address areas below that remain of high interest to constituents:
RZ: 1. Affordable/workforce housing: Please, see the answer above.

2. Population growth: A growing population is positive for our community and local economy. New Hanover County has experienced significant in-migration over the past 30-plus years. That growth has increased our tax base, supports all sectors of our business community, creates a flourishing arts and cultural community, and has allowed NHC to expand the services that it offers its citizens. Managing the growth is important to maintain the quality of life that we all enjoy.

3. Taxes: There is an appropriate tension between the amount of taxes paid by the public and the value of the benefits received by our citizens. In NHC the Board of Commissioners and county staff have done a good job of balancing these two issues as we enjoy a good quality of life in our community, while maintaining the lowest tax rate among our 10 peer counties in NC.

Some examples of what our taxes pay for in NHC: Property taxes are necessary to pay for our public education system, Pre-K through community college, which creates the educated work force of the future and insures that as a community we continue to prosper. Taxes pay for the many emergency and public safety services that we rely on during public health emergencies, flood events and hurricanes. They provide a basic safety net for those in our community who are the most vulnerable — the elderly, the disabled, and the disadvantaged. Taxes help support the cultural institutions in our community that identify who we are and where we came from – the Cape Fear Museum, the Arboretum, Airlie Gardens, our 15 parks and gardens, and the pubic library system.     

4. School funding and safety: I believe that school funding is a priority for the county commission to guarantee that we maintain a quality, high-performing public school system that is held accountable, at all grade levels, for providing an education and a lifelong love of learning, to our children, young adults and adults who participate in our Community College system. Our students at all levels deserve to have a safe and nurturing learning environment — free from threats of violence.

PCD: Conversations are evolving in regards to the development of the western banks of the Cape Fear River. Do you support conservation and/or small or large mixed-use development in this area of Wilmington? Explain. 
RZ: The dynamic environmental factors that are evident on the west side of the Cape Fear River — related to the confluence of the Cape Fear River and Northeast Cape Fear Rivers, the low lying terrain and the increasing number of annual flooding events caused by more intense rain storms and the effects of ocean expansion — are all concerns that need to be studied and seriously considered before allowing any development.

It is very easy to make a quick decision based on a short-term gain but would possibly create a situation that we would soon regret — and as a county, we would be responsible for providing emergency services and infrastructure support — for generations to come. I support the path that the commissioners have currently agreed to follow: to gather more information, hydrology and mapping studies, before making any decisions on the future of development on that side of the Cape Fear River. In this case, I believe it is better to be cautious than foolish.

At his time, I support conservation with limited development that is designed to allow public access to the areas on the west side of the Cape Fear River for support of educational, recreational, cultural, and eco-tourism activities. A “conservation only” land use policy will be difficult, if not impossible, to legally achieve.

PCD: How would you grade the county, A-F, in balancing green space with development? Do you have ideas on improving?
RZ: I believe that the investments that NHC has made in its parks and gardens department – 15 parks throughout New Hanover County and a new park, Hanover Pines Nature Park, in the southern part of the county, to be opened in 2023 — have helped to provide the citizens of NHC with many opportunities to enjoy the beauty of our environment while engaging in a variety of outdoor activities. Additionally, the many walking and biking trails throughout the unincorporated portions of NHC are constantly being added to with additional funding for the expansion of those amenities.

There is room for improvement, especially in the currently undeveloped, northern portions of NHC. I would support setting aside a large tract of land for the benefit of all citizens, before development takes over.  

PCD: The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is nearing its end-of-life span without a firm plan in place to build anew. What would you like to see happen and how do you propose its funding, as it’s not listed a priority on NCDOT’s 10-year STIP? Do you support a toll?
RZ: Our city and county need a new bridge. Because of the size of this project, funding from the NCDOT and federal government, along with local funding, will be necessary to pay for this critical piece of transportation infrastructure. The practical lifetime of the existing memorial bridge is rapidly declining and it is very important for the local governments on both sides of the Cape Fear River to come to an agreement on the path that a new bridge should take — and then, with a unified voice, approach the NCDOT and our representatives in Washington D.C. to make it clear — we need a new bridge.

PCD: Are there other top-of-mind infrastructure needs you would address as commissioner?
RZ: Clean water and the expansion of water and sewer in the northern part of NHC.  Both of these issues are critical to the growth and prosperity of our county. 

PCD: Do you support public-private partnerships, most recently Project Grace and the soon-to-open New Hanover County Government Center? Do you think it’s an appropriate use of taxpayer money? Explain.
RZ: Yes, I support Project Grace and the building of the new government center. The concept of local government working with the private sector, as in a public-private partnership (P3), makes great sense. 

In the case of Project Grace, using this kind of development partnership will allow NHC to build a new, multi-storied, state-of-the-art public library and Cape Fear Museum, including an interior planetarium, with 8,000 square feet of common area, outdoor balconies and terraces suitable for receptions, public gatherings, and quiet reading areas — all purpose built and fully equipped with the latest technology — without a major tax increase. This is possible because of the partnership with the developer, who will build the new structures for the county and will retain 1/3 of the property, along the Chestnut Street side, to build a variety of retail and commercial spaces including a new hotel and apartments. Because of the agreement, the county will have a say in what types and the quality of the structures that are built by the developer.  

If the county were to simply sell the property along Chestnut Street, they would give up control of what could be built on that property and the ability to place any conditions on the new construction.

PCD: There have been concerns with a rise in homelessness in the area. Commissioners voted down an ordinance in April that would have made it illegal for unsheltered populations to sleep on county property. Do you support that decision? How would you propose the county step in to help some of the most vulnerable populations?
RZ: The county is proposing a fresh approach to the downtown homelessness issue that will include a series of teams made up of a trained member of the county’s department of social services working with a member of the Wilmington Police Department — to approach and talk with members of the homeless community to determine what existing services are available to them and give them specific alternatives to sleeping on the street. 

Also, to help assess and get help for any underlying mental, or behavioral health issues that may contribute to their circumstances. This new program may not completely solve the problem but the hope is that this approach will alleviate the current situation and decrease the number of existing homeless persons.

[Ed. note: Since this questionnaire was sent, the county has established a joint partnership with the city to start a pilot program to address homelessness.]

PCD: Where can the county improve to provide more equitable opportunities and outreach to historically marginalized communities? 
RZ: The county made great strides in helping our marginalized populations in 2020 with the creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, led by Ms. Linda Thompson. The work that the DEI office is doing throughout our community is already making a difference with our NHC staff and workforce of nearly 2,000 people. DEI directors and staff are being hired at every major institution and business in our county. I am hopeful that their work will continue to spread throughout our community until every qualified person is given the opportunity to rise to their full potential in whatever field of work or walk of life they choose.

PCD: Is the county doing enough to hold Chemours accountable for PFAS pollution in the Cape Fear? Explain.
RZ: Yes, Chemours will be held fully accountable for the damage they have caused to our community and the infrastructure that we have built to filter the contaminated water, will be reimbursed.  

PCDCitizens have expressed concerns regarding trust with the current board; what will you do to (re)gain it?
RZ: I plan to continue to do the work of the citizens of New Hanover County in a financially responsible and honest manner, with integrity, and make full use of the experience that I now have as a commissioner for the past eight years, in working to maintain the quality of life that we all enjoy.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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