Chapel Hill elections marked by big money, vitriol. Who will win is anybody’s guess.

Chapel Hill elections are usually focused on how the town should grow and what the future should look like in a college town where more than 61,000 people now live.

This year, a poll shows voters are struggling just to pick their candidates.

On Tuesday, voters will decide between two visions, electing a new mayor and at least three, if not four, new members to four-year terms on the Chapel Hill Town Council.

It’s been a record-setting year, both in terms of how much money the candidates and political groups have raised — over $251,000 at last count — and the vitriol that has been directed to opposing sides.

Mayoral candidate Adam Searing, halfway through his first council term, has stood alone on multiple 8-1 votes, often as council peers rolled their eyes or talked among themselves as he spoke from the dais. He decided to run because he thinks voters support his vision and the council isn’t listening, he said.

The public interest attorney is campaigning with four council candidates to preserve existing neighborhoods and invest more in small, local businesses, parks and outdoor recreation. He says the town is on the wrong path, including with economic development, its budget and a 10% increase in the property tax rate enacted this year.

His opponent, UNC professor of the practice and three-term Council member Jessica Anderson, wants to continue the town’s move toward a Complete Community. The town initiative encourages greenways as recreation and a way to get around without a car; more diverse housing, such as duplexes and cottages, in some neighborhoods; and UNC startups and larger companies bringing year-round residents and customers to downtown and its shops.

The council listens to everyone but has to do what’s right for the town, Anderson says, as she points to council decisions, from spending millions of dollars on affordable housing and plans for more parks, trails and recreation, to working with the state to clean up a buried coal ash dump at the Chapel Hill Police Department.

Several council candidates, some with town advisory board experience, share her vision. Amy Ryan, the lone incumbent seeking re-election to the council, partnered with Anderson this fall to launch a “Know Before You Vote” page online to counter misinformation.

But a recent Public Policy Polling survey found that voters are more unsure about their choices than in previous years, with only 30% having a favorable opinion of Anderson and 31% having a favorable opinion of Searing. Roughly 40% said they don’t know who they’ll vote for on Election Day, and fewer than a third had a favorable opinion of Mayor Pam Hemminger and the current council.

Early voting in Orange County ends at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4. Voters can also cast a ballot on Election Day, Nov. 7, from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. North Carolina voters need a valid ID when they show up at the polls this year.

More housing and where is key issue

The conversation for most voters has centered on housing — how many apartments are being built compared with for-sale homes and affordable units, and a decision this year to allow duplexes and accessory cottages in some low-density, single-family neighborhoods.

The new zoning limits the size of duplexes and second homes, maintains existing setbacks and landscaping buffers, and adds new requirements for stormwater runoff, tree protection and parking.

Critics, many of whom live in established neighborhoods and homes near campus where the changes could be felt more, have galvanized behind Searing, who rejected the town’s Housing Choices plan, a component of Complete Community.

They fear student rentals and expensive duplexes will replace family homes and make housing even less affordable, push tax values beyond what homeowners can afford, and increase the potential for flooding and tree clearing.

Those who support the zoning change argue it will bring smaller and therefore less-expensive housing, although not necessarily what most people think of as affordable housing, and allow many Chapel Hill workers to live in the town. Taller, more dense apartment buildings and townhouses would remain along busy commuter roads and commercial areas.

Small groups making big impact

Chapel Hill has a long history of vigorous debates. This election has brought out the worst in some circles, however, with allegations and misinformation leaving many voters unsure who should get their vote.

The Public Policy Polling survey shows voters are also unsure about some of the loudest voices in the conversation: Triangle Blog Blog; Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town and its Chapel Hill Leadership political action committee; and the nonprofit Next Chapel Hill-Carrboro and its political action committee, NEXT Action Fund.

Next Chapel Hill-Carrboro is a counterpoint to CHALT, hosting public events and advocating for affordable housing, economic growth and transportation options. It has taken some heat online for not disclosing donors or donations to its Action Fund, a 501(c)4, or so-called “dark money,” political action group, and some of its supporters write for the blog, a sometimes snarky source for local news and issues.

Roughly 63% of survey respondents were unsure of how they view Triangle Blog Blog, while another 23% had a favorable view. The Next Chapel Hill-Carrboro results were similar, with 68% saying they were unsure, 18% having a favorable opinion and 14% having an unfavorable opinion, the results showed.

Last month, Next Chapel Hill-Carrboro responded to online allegations about its money and donors, posting some information online, including that the average donation to its Action Fund is $30 and that it spent about $379 on endorsement postcards in 2021.

The Action Fund filed its first Independent Expenditure report last week with the State Board of Elections that showed it has collected $1,630 from 11 donors since February and spent almost $2,710 on election endorsement mailers. Top donors include Carrboro resident and therapist Erin “Kit” Nowell, who gave $500, and Chapel Hill resident and physician Tom Farmer, who gave $230.

More people had an opinion about CHALT: 20% with a favorable view, 32% with an unfavorable view, and 48% who weren’t sure.

The group, founded in 2014, had its best fundraising year ever in 2023, reporting last week that it has raised $23,740 and spent $20,187, primarily to get out the word about local issues and to support Searing and four council candidates: David Adams, Breckany Eckhardt, Elizabeth Sharp and Renuka Soll.

The other candidates running for four council seats are incumbent Ryan and newcomers Jeffrey Hoagland, Melissa McCullough, Jon Mitchell, Theodore Nollert and Erik Valera.

The Chapel Hill Leadership PAC’s latest fundraising outpaces the $14,252 in donations that it reported in December 2015, shortly after overturning the council majority and mayor’s office. The group hasn’t come close to that in the intervening years.

This year, after the blog broke news about a possible new political action committee opposed to the zoning change, organizer Julia Grumbles told The Daily Tar Heel that the PAC was not forming. A Sept. 18 email shared with The News & Observer showed Grumbles sent an email to neighbors asking that donations instead be made to the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC.

CHL-PAC’s reports show Susan Moffatt, named as a contact in the email, gave $3,000 to CHL-PAC in September, and in October, a couple associated with the rumored PAC, Steve Jones and Lisa Jones, gave $6,400. They were among the top donors who gave since September.

The Joneses, Grumbles and husband William Grumbles, and Greg Fitch, also identified as an organizer, gave large donations to Searing and his slate. Fitch, vice president of Fitch Creations, did not donate to CHL-PAC, but the company’s general manager Glenn Fitch gave $3,000.