Siler City initiates redistricting process, greenlights Chatham 250 fireworks display

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SILER CITY — The Siler City Board of Commissioners initiated the redistricting process Monday night, setting mapmakers’ five guiding principles for creating the town’s new voting districts.

Those criteria include preserving the core of existing districts; avoiding pairing incumbents; planning for future growth; preserving communities of interest (i.e. prioritize the intactness of neighborhoods, or other historical, cultural or economic communities); and requiring substantially equal population.

Commissioners approved the criteria in a 6-0 vote. Commissioner Bill Haiges didn’t attend the meeting.

“This is a process that takes place every 10 years after the Census in order to readjust the lines of voting districts in accordance with population shifts that may show up after that census,” said attorney Deborah Stagner of Tharrington Smith LLP, the law firm the town contracted last December to guide Siler City through the redistricting process.

Usually, Census data arrives in March to states and municipalities, permitting town officials several months to redistrict in advance of the November elections. This year, however, the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t begin releasing data to state and municipalities until August 12, thanks to pandemic delays.

To accommodate tardy Census data, the General Assembly passed a law in July to delay some 2021 municipal elections until March 8, 2022 — including Siler City’s. Because most municipalities — such as Pittsboro — don’t vote by districts, their elections will go on as planned in November.

Since Siler City uses electoral districts to elect five commissioners, town officials must evaluate the town’s voting districts and amend them, if needed, to uphold the “one person, one vote” principle, in which every resident is entitled to fair and equal representation by districts of roughly equal population.

Municipalities don’t need to readjust districts if their populations didn’t change much over the previous decade.

The 2020 U.S. Census found that Siler City’s population decreased from 7,887 people to 7,702 — and now the town’s new ideal district population is 1,540 people, according to demographer and mapping expert Blake Esselstyn. He and his company, Mapfigure Consulting, will be drawing Siler City’s new voting maps.

“The law in North Carolina has determined that in order to make the finding that the districts are within the acceptable level of deviation, that they have that substantially equal population, they need to be within +/-5% (of the ideal population),” he told the board. “ … And so the key determination that everyone’s talking about in terms of whether the town will need to redistrict is whether all five districts fall within that +/-5%.”

Only three of Siler City’s districts fall within that range. District 1 is about 7% below the ideal district range, while District 3 is 8% above.

So, “the districts have to be modified,” Esselstyn said — and he can only modify them with direction from the town board, which commissioners gave.

Now that the town has outlined guiding principles, Esselstyn will draw a couple of potential plans and present them to the board on Nov. 1, allowing commissioners to ask questions and give feedback. By law, the town must then hold a public hearing over the maps; under Stagner’s timeline, the town will hold that hearing on Nov. 15.

On Dec. 6, commissioners will gather for one final time to approve the revised maps.

Seats held by four commissioners — Cindy Bray, Tony Siler, Norma Boone and Lewis Fadely — plus the town’s vacant mayorship will be up for election on March 8, 2022. The revised candidate filing period opens at noon on Jan. 3 and closes on Jan. 7.

Chatham 250’s grand finale

The year-long celebration to commemorate Chatham County’s 250th anniversary will come to a close in just over a month — but its grand finale won’t be a “caravana,” or parade, around Siler City on Oct. 23 as originally planned.

Instead, it’ll be a fireworks display at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, in downtown Siler City. On the recommendation of the celebration’s primary planner, Chatham 250’s Diversity and Community sub-committee, the board voted 6-0 to amend the event and postpone it until mid-November.

“This is a great idea,” Commissioner Chip Price said. “Siler City’s been missing fireworks for I don’t know how long.”

Hale Artificier, a fireworks store based in Lexington, will present the display from the Wren Industries property for 20 to 30 minutes. According to Chatham 250 presenter and assistant county manager Bryan Thompson, the display will cost $6,000 — a cost Siler City and Chatham County will evenly split as sponsors under the proposal.

Siler City first voted to sponsor the celebration’s grand finale last April. Up until Monday, Chatham 250 planners had hoped to arrange a parade, which would have started at Bray Park and ended across the street from the Siler City Fire Department. About a month ago, however, pandemic-related concerns forced planners to consider pivoting.

“There have been concerns expressed earlier on, especially when we were in the heat of the pandemic, of crowds that parades could bring and that are the kind of crowds that are condensed and pushed to the front of a road,” Thompson told the board. “So as we were workshopping that problem over the past month or so, we started exploring not forward with the parade, but instead going out with a bang.”

A fireworks display, Thompson said, would offer ample space for social distancing and allow people to join in from their cars and even their homes. A display also wouldn’t disrupt traffic as much as a parade. Various town departments — including fire, police and public works — have already approved the display plans.

“It’s an opportunity to bring people downtown and really chime with the great work going on there,” he said. “ … It’s just a great end of a long one-year celebration to go out with fireworks as opposed to something like a parade, so we’re very, very excited about this. Everybody that we’ve spoken with has met this with a very real sense of positivity, and we think this is going to draw a very nice crowd.”

Other meeting business

• Commissioners authorized Town Manager Roy Lynch to contract a structural engineer to evaluate and recommend what the town should do about a condemned building on 106 E. Raleigh Street after Oct. 10.

Due to the building’s liability to fire, decay and the bad condition of its walls, the Chatham County Inspections Department condemned the building as unsafe on Sept. 17.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building within the Siler City Commercial Historic District. Built in 1910, the one-story brick building had been constructed as an annex to another building that no longer exists (the 1902 Wrenn Brothers Co. building). Today, only the building’s rear and side brick walls are original.

“The violations (need to) be addressed by Oct. 10,” Planning Director Jack Meadows told the board. “That is to give that structural analysis and share that with us so we can assess what actions will be taken and furthermore on Nov. 28 obtain proper permits or demolish the building — so analysis by the 10th and then the permits to make the repairs.”

• Repairs to West Fifth Street culverts between Camelia Avenue and the railroad tracks will likely not meet its original deadline in late October, Lynch told the board in his manager’s report.

In June, Siler City contracted McGill Associates, an engineering consultancy based in Raleigh, to evaluate a replacement project on the Fifth Street culverts. The tunnels convey water beneath the road away from Loves Creek Tributary 1.

The town contracted SKC Inc., the lowest bidder, to complete the road repairs for $149,960. SKC Inc. contacted the project’s engineer, who reported “they are having a difficult time now sourcing the culverts,” according to Lynch.

“So this project is going to be delayed for a little while, but I’m not sure at this point what that time frame looks like,” Lynch told the board. “We had originally contracted with them to complete the project in 45 days, which was supposed to be sometime around the third week of October, but I do not think we are going to meet that at this point.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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