Tuesday, September 26, 2023

2022 Primary Election: Incumbent Rob Zapple seeks another term on NHC Board of Commissioners

Rob Zapple, Democrat, is campaigning to keep his seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY ⁠— Rob Zapple, Democrat, is campaigning to keep his seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. Zapple was elected in both 2014 and 2018 to serve on the board.

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate running in local elections in the tri-county region. The paywall is dropped on profiles to help voters make informed decisions ahead of casting their ballots.

As a reminder, the early voting period runs from Apr. 28 to May 14. The voter registration deadline is Apr. 22. Voters may partake in same-day registration throughout the two-week early voting period (check if your registration is active at your current address).

Primary Election Day is May 17. Voters will choose which candidates from their registered party they want to move forward in the formal election. Those who are registered as unaffiliated can choose which party’s primary they want to vote in.

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

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Port City Daily (PCD): What is your top priority and how would you address it?

Rob Zapple (RZ): My top priority as a commissioner is managing growth and balancing our continued economic prosperity with the high quality of life we treasure.

Related issues include: 

— Clean drinking water for our entire community.

— A well-funded, high-performing public education system, from Pre-K to community college.

— Affordable housing. Those who work in New Hanover County — teachers, sheriff’s deputies and policemen, nurses, firefighters, EMS personnel, our county and city employees — should be able to afford to buy or rent in NHC.

— Land use zoning ordinances that support and encourage higher density development and recognize the need for open green space. 

— Increased funding for transportation issues, including more multi-use trails, bike paths, expansion of public transportation, the rail realignment project and a new bridge crossing over the Cape Fear River.

— Protection of our unique coastal environment through beach re-nourishment and protection from flooding in the areas of the County most vulnerable to flooding. 

— Policies that protect and support our local businesses, entrepreneurs, and our Non-Profit organizations.

— A tax rate that keeps our local taxes at the lowest rates possible to achieve these goals.

PCD: What improvements need to be made to public transportation in New Hanover County? Should a quarter-cent sales tax increase pass, would you support a resolution to levy the tax beginning in 2023? Should a quarter-cent sales tax increase not pass, what would be the next best course of action?

RZ: New Hanover County needs a reliable public transportation system with frequent, on-time service, sheltered bus stops, stops at major employment and retail centers, and service for riders getting to early morning and late evening job shifts. 

I support the ballot initiative for a quarter-cent increase to our local sales tax. The tax will be paid in part by the tens of thousands of tourists that visit NHC annually, and the 30,000 to 40,000 commuters per day coming from Brunswick and Pender counties, and beyond.

In addition to public transportation, the revenue from the sales tax will provide funding for the expansion of the county-wide system of biking and multi-use paths and funding for the Rail Realignment Project. 

If the quarter-cent sales tax increase is not approved by the voters in November, the funding necessary for the projects mentioned above will be deferred to an unknown time in the future, or when additional, sustainable, revenue sources become available.

PCD: What are your thoughts on the affordable housing crisis in New Hanover County? Is $15 million over five years adequate? How should that money be leveraged? What else needs to be done?

RZ: The community plan that was adopted in February by the NHC Commissioners, will provide $15 million over the next five years to identify, manage, and be accountable for those initiatives that are proven to be the most effective in creating affordable housing. This commitment by NHC is in addition to the ongoing financial support of multiple affordable housing partnerships and programs that exist today.  These existing partnerships and programs include: 

— $1.8 million in funding to support the Starway Apartments project with the City of Wilmington that will create 278 affordable housing units on Carolina Beach Road.

— A continued partnership with Habitat for Humanity where the county is donating 16 acres of property off Castle Hayne Road to create 52 new affordable single family houses and, in partnership with the city, provided water and sewer infrastructure to a Habitat for Humanity project that recently completed 27 new, energy efficient, affordable houses on Daniel Boone Trail. 

— The county and the city partnered in providing $250,000 each in funding for water and sewer infrastructure for Eden Village, a unique “tiny home” project that will create 40 new homes (400 squar feet) in their phase one development off Kornegay Avenue.

— The county is providing continued funding for the Mortgage Assistance program that helps those in need to stay in their existing homes. 

— The Emergency Rental Assistance program that has brought over $28 million from the federal government into NHC to assist those families who are in financial distress due to the pandemic.  

The county also needs to monitor and seek funding from all available state and federal programs that address this critical shortage. The problem is not just local; it is a complex national challenge and will be solved through positive incremental steps and evidence based programs. Locally, governments need to invest in infrastructure while developing land use policies that incentivize local developers and builders to participate in finding a solution.

PCD: New Hanover County is creating an anti-violence department and spending millions each year to launch it. What are your thoughts on the action plan?

RZ: Our sheriff’s department and Wilmington Police Department have done an excellent job in addressing overall crime in our community, but we need to do more to address the root causes of crime and specifically gun violence. The county has committed funding to a series of initiatives, known collectively as “Community Building,” that will:

— Add mental and behavioral health counselors in our schools along with more school nurses.

— Increase the use of our existing programs — Elements and Too Good For Violence — to address the social and emotional needs of at-risk students in middle and high schools. 

— Partner with local nonprofits to bring community resource coordinators into our schools to help students and families receive equitable and easy access to existing services. 

In addition, the county has created a new county department, Port City United, based on an evidence-based model, Cure Violence Global.  This program will put multiple “violence interrupters” into the areas of our community that have historically had the most gun violence and crime. This model has shown to dramatically decrease gun violence in other cities.   

PCD: In what ways does New Hanover County need to manage population growth? Are there new ideas you would bring to the table?

RZ: New Hanover County is one of the smallest and also fastest growing counties in the state. In short, we have a lot of people living in a very small area and are continuing to grow rapidly. However, population growth, if managed properly, is a positive thing for a local economy that continues to thrive.

We will need to be very intentional on how we proceed with commercial, industrial, and residential development, while recognizing the importance of maintaining open green space and protecting our environmentally sensitive areas. In July of 2019 the NHC Commissioners approved a series of major changes to our land use ordinances, adding eight new residential zoning districts that will allow rezoning of existing property to be developed with a variety of housing options to increase the density allowed on existing parcels. Providing different housing options will improve affordability, allow local retailers to locate closer to neighborhoods, and increase connectivity between neighborhoods.   

PCD: How well do you think the county balances development with “livability” (i.e. moderated traffic, preserved green space, etc.)?

RZ: I have been a strong advocate for maintaining and creating more open green space throughout NHC, and I believe that preserving green space is a major component of maintaining our community’s high quality of life. Strengthening our land use development codes and ordinances to limit the hardscape coverage of parcels, discourage development of wetlands and encourage the preservation of open space with all new developments, are ways that the NHC Planning and Zoning Department is making an impact on keeping open space open. The county’s new tree ordinance also helps to preserve our tree canopy and prevents the future cutting of legacy oaks and hardwood trees. 

As a county we can and should do more. In my opinion, there is a need for an additional large park, or dedicated open space, in the undeveloped, northern part of the unincorporated county. This area will see significant residential and commercial growth in the near future and now is the time to preserve a large tract of land. 

PCD: What role do commissioners need to play in protecting the local environment and coasts?

RZ: New Hanover County’s greatest asset is its unique coastal environment. Our beaches, the Cape Fear River, our wetlands and estuaries all provide the foundation of our prosperity by attracting tourists, businesses, and families who come to visit and relocate here. 

The protection of our environmental resources requires guaranteeing clean drinking water for all citizens. I have been a strong advocate for the strengthening of local ordinances and state legislation to stop current sources of pollution, hold those responsible, fully accountable for contaminant discharges, and prevent future contamination from happening.

We must also protect our beaches. Through the funds created by our local room occupancy tax, and a 50-plus year partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, NHC has been able to create some of the most desirable beaches in our nation. By periodically adding sand to the beaches, we are keeping them broad, thick, and strengthening the dune lines, so that they will act as a massive defense system that saps the energy out of storms and hurricanes that hit our coast — preventing millions of dollars in property losses, destruction of businesses and most importantly protecting our citizens lives.

It is critical that the county continues to support the funding of beach re-nourishment projects and the multiple dredging events that are necessary to keep our inlets and Intracoastal waterways safe, and open to commercial and private boating traffic. 

PCD: What do you think of the county’s supplemental funding for the school district?

RZ: In 2021 the county commissioners approved a supplemental funding rate of $3,434 per student, providing significant salary increases for all teachers in the NHC public school system and raising their salary levels to be among the highest in North Carolina. The result has been positive in stabilizing the turn over rate of teachers in NHC and has allowed our public school system to enter into the 2021-22 school year with very few teacher vacancies to fill.

In addition, the board of education has received substantial funding from the State and the federal government through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other pandemic relief funding over the past two years. There are restrictions on the use of those funds and the financial staff at the NHC public school system are advising the members of the board of education on how they can best use those funds in addressing the many needs that they are facing. It is the hope of the county that the board of education will make use of that extra funding before making any further requests for an increase in supplemental or facility funding from NHC.

PCD: What do you think of the current tax rates? How would you balance taxes with identifying funding for top-of-mind issues?

RZ: I believe our current tax rate can be lowered without losing any services that are currently available. One option that could be used to lower the existing tax rate is for the county to make use of the revenue stabilization fund — a $300 million fund that was established with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The money in this fund belongs to the taxpayers, and is a result of the investment that the taxpayers of NHC made in our hospital for 54 years, and is intended to be used to help fund solutions to important issues that affect our community.

Currently, New Hanover County has the ninth lowest property tax rate of the 100 counties in NC, which still creates enough revenue for our county to run our local government, continue to fund our schools at an exceptional rate in comparison to other school systems around the state, fund our law enforcement and emergency services agencies, provide funding for our libraries, museum and arboretum and help fund  local nonprofits. 

At the same time, we are servicing our accumulated debt, and maintaining a AAA bond rating. This exceptional bond rating allows NHC to borrow money at the lowest rates available, saving the citizens of NHC millions of dollars in interest payments every year. New Hanover County government does a lot with every tax dollar they receive. 

PCD: Is there an additional issue or issues you think need(s) to be addressed during your term, should you win?

RZ: I am looking forward to increasing the county’s efforts in finding new and better ways to communicate with all of the citizens in our county. NHC took a significant step forward two years ago in hiring one of the first diversity, equity and inclusion directors in our region. 

The work that Linda Thompson has done for our county and our 2,000 employees has been impressive. It has strengthened our culture and empowered many in our workforce that have skills and leadership abilities that had gone unnoticed and untapped in the past. The work of the DEI Department has made your New Hanover County government more representative of the community that we serve and, along the way, stronger than it has ever been.

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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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