Cary developers want to redefine Pittsboro with Chatham Park

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 17, 2013 

— The Triangle may get a new corner.

A gargantuan new business and residential park, now under consideration by the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners, could multiply the small town’s population from fewer than 4,000 to at least 60,000 people over several decades.

If approved, Chatham Park would put up to 22,000 new residences and 13 million square feet of “research and development” space west of Jordan Lake, about 15 miles past Cary’s border.

Billed as a sequel to Research Triangle Park, the sprawling plan is an effort of Preston Development Company, a Cary-based firm that has the financial backing of Jim Goodnight and John Sall. Goodnight’s company, SAS Institute, helped make Cary – and now he could help remake Chatham County.

Preston Development pitches Chatham Park as the “live-work-play community of the future,” bordering tech headquarters with scores of neighborhoods, parks and shopping centers across 7,000 acres. Its landmass puts it on par with Research Triangle Park, which was founded in the 1950s near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The scale of the new proposal?

“Probably once in a lifetime,” said Stacey Anfindsen, a real-estate appraiser and market watcher who isn’t involved in the project.

Small town, big plans

Pittsboro today is perhaps best known for the restored courthouse that stands in the middle of an old South downtown, just next to a soda shop.

Like the rest of Chatham County, the town has grown over the past few decades, its population increasing by about 70 percent in the past 10 years.

But Chatham Park is unprecedented – it would be large enough one day to house practically all of Chatham County’s current residents.

The first rumors of the project began in 2006 as a company named Chatham Park Investors made the first of more than 100 land purchases, buying up large lots east of town, many of them rural.

Details of the plan emerged over the years, with talk of a potential technology park circulating by 2008.

At the end of last year, the gears really began to turn: Chatham Park Investors requested that the town of Pittsboro bring the site into its planning jurisdiction.

It’s a huge planning task for a small-town government. Pittsboro has a planning staff of one and only recently hired its first engineer.

Still, the process has moved quickly. Town commissioners are considering approval of a “planned development district,” essentially a broad rezoning of the Chatham Park land that will give the developers significant leeway from existing town rules.

For some, the quick-moving process is a hopeful sign, evidence that the region-changing project really may happen, potentially bringing a surge of economic activity to Pittsboro.

To others, the scale of the plan is cause for concern, and people across Pittsboro are preparing for an existential debate about their little town’s future.

Major changes

Pierre Lauffer is a planner by trade and a longtime Pittsboro resident. He’s not opposed to the idea of Chatham Park, but he worries that the town could give away control of its future.

Current plans would put companies along the eastern side of downtown Pittsboro, with residential and commercial areas extending out like wings to the southeast and northeast. The new development could bring major changes to everything from sewage treatment to roadways, along with a flood of new residents.

“What they’re proposing is to change Pittsboro to fit the parameters of their development, not the other way around,” Lauffer said.

Among other allowances, Chatham Park wouldn’t be bound by Pittsboro’s usual rules about lot size and setbacks in houses. Lauffer said he worries that the town won’t have enough manpower to fully review the details of the plan as they come in over the years.

Instead, he suggests that the development would better be handled by the Chatham County government.

He’s one of many who have questioned the project, he said, on grounds from its scale to its style.

Beth Turner, a town commissioner, said she ran for office in 2011 to address Chatham Park issues. She believes the project is a chance for Pittsboro to control its own future, making the best of anticipated development.

“I know there are a lot of people who say they don’t want things to change, and I agree … but at some point, as demand happens … it’s going to grow and change anyway,” Turner said.

The key, she added, is “trying to be mindful of how it’s done, and make sure everybody’s listened to.”

Representatives for Preston weren’t available for comment. On its website, the company claims that Chatham Park is “ready to develop” and will be aimed at tech and biotech companies.

But the decision has not been made yet. Pittsboro commissioners will hear public comment on the proposal at their Monday meeting.

“There’s no specific timeline,” said Stuart Bass, planning director for the town.

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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