Pittsboro leaders postpone decision on controversial Chatham Park development

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

— The town's elected officials on Monday put the brakes on Chatham Park, delaying a decision on the region-changing development until early 2014.

The town also will hire a third-party consultant to review Preston Development Co.'s proposal, which could bring 60,000 residents to Pittsboro over several decades.

Mayor Randy Voller had pushed the board to vote on a master plan for the massive development on Monday. Coming at Voller's last meeting as mayor, approval would have allowed limited construction to begin while setting a planning groundwork.

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners' midnight vote split 4-1 against the plan, whose final details were introduced three days before the meeting. Commissioner Jay Farrell said that while he liked the project, he was "overwhelmed" by its scale and unready for a vote. Commissioner Bett Wilson-Foley said the town had "so much at stake."

Only Commissioner Michael Fiocco, who was instrumental in negotiating the final details, voted for approval. Pittsboro's mayor doesn't vote on board matters, but he argued extensively for the project.

The decision came after five hours of discussion - mostly the arguments of dozens of Pittsboro residents and nearby landowners - and the strain between neighbors was obvious.

While many critics praised Voller's eight years of elected service, the crowd grew discontent in the meeting's last hour. The packed courthouse crowd began to grumble then shout as Voller delivered a speech of more than 30 minutes about Pittsboro's history, the project's details and his time as mayor.

"This is a filibuster!" someone cried from the crowd. "I have to go to work tomorrow!" came another shout.

The mayor carried on. He had listened to 15 hours of public input on Chatham Park, and countless more on other projects, and he would speak his mind, he said.

Fiocco also argued for approval, which would show "good faith," he said. "I think we want them to be aligned. The best way to do that is to work with them, not against them."

Ultimately, though, Voller's last meeting wouldn't go his way.

Mayor-elect Bill Terry, who takes office in December, took the podium as the board discussed its vote. Terry, a former Pittsboro town manager, spelled out a plan for the board to begin a deeper consideration of Chatham Park, and the search for an independent consultant, as early as next month.

Long night

The contentious night began six hours before the final vote, as 60 people gathered in the cold outside the historic Pittsboro courthouse. The scene outside and testimony that went on late into the night inside the courthouse spoke to a town divided.

The crowd’s signs read: “Don’t vote tonight,” “Stop the vote,” and “What’s the rush?”

To those gathered, the courthouse meeting represented a fork in the road for the town of about 3,000 – and some felt they hadn’t had time to prepare. While Preston Development Co.’s Chatham Park proposal has been winding through the approval process since summer, the final details of its broad plan and agreement with the town were only published on Friday, according to Pittsboro Matters, a self-described citizens’ group.

“Don’t be bullied!” a woman urged with a megaphone. “Don’t vote tonight,” the crowd responded.

In a phone interview, Mayor-elect Bill Terry joined the protesters’ calls for delay. Voters hadn’t had time to review the final draft of the planned development district, he said.

“The thing I hear most, is ‘Why are we moving so fast on this monumental project, that’s probably the largest single development that’s ever occurred in the state of North Carolina?’” said Terry, who won this year’s election with 484 votes and a 23-percentage-point margin. The current mayor, Randy Voller, did not run for re-election.

Terry’s opponent, Bill Crawford, testified to the heat of the debate. “I almost definitely lost this last election because of Chatham Park,” said Crawford, who has called for approval of Chatham Park.

Monday night was Voller’s last meeting in an eight-year run. He said he empathized with the protesters, but cast the vote as a crucial step that would only begin more years of planning. He wanted to act immediately to capitalize on what he described as successful town negotiations for items such as carbon-neutral development and $300,000 in annual funding for an expansion of the town’s planning staff, he said.

“We’re at a point of maximum leverage,” Voller emphatically told a crowd gathered around him outside the courthouse. “I’ve pushed them about as far as I can on my values. After that, I don’t know.”

If the board refused, Voller said, the developer could have the state legislature create a new town for it.

The outgoing mayor at times expressed doubt about the protesters’ intentions, saying that many outside the courthouse would oppose Chatham Park even after months or a year of delay. Later, he said that only a quarter of the speakers at the public meeting lived within town limits.

Delaying a vote, he said, would only put the future board in a “hostage situation,” dealing with “endless protest.”

As the meeting got under way, Voller‘s farewell speech urged action and developer Tim Smith again pitched his vision. He said that the rezoning wasn’t “permission to build” the project, although the item on the agenda does set the stage for near-future construction on up to 5 percent of Chatham Park’s residential and 15 percent of its non-residential areas.

Four hours of comments

The debate only grew as more than 200 people packed the courthouse for the meeting. A string of Pittsboro residents and nearby neighbors spoke for about four hours, their comments ranging from emotional recollections of their time in Pittsboro to country wisdom, legal and environmental questions, and philosophical debate about the town’s future.

On the table was a planned development district, essentially a broad rezoning, that would exempt the developers from the town’s requirements for minimum lot size, lot frontage and set backs, and its maximum building height. The first construction likely would happen on the northern end of town, Voller said.

The revised rezoning also requires the developer to submit plans about trees, public facilities, transit and other items, for review and a development agreement for consideration by the board within two years.

The agreement states that Chatham Park will be governed by the town’s development rules, such as setback requirements and density rules. However, according to town staff, the master plan would take precedence when it contradicts town rules.

“I’m too old to go along with a verbal ‘trust me,’” said Mary Lucas, a Pittsboro resident. “We may have a very large Cary on our doorstep, with no way to influence this behemoth.”

A woman, who called herself a business owner, argued that the town needed to act quickly to secure new residents. Dianne Reid, president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, called for approval too.

Jeffrey Starkweather, an organizer for Pittsboro Matters, said the board has done too much of its negotiation in what he described as closed meetings with only a subset of the board. “We have essentially a closed-door, top-down, ‘We know what’s best for the community’ decision process,” he said.

He said rezoning would commit the town to Chatham Park. Because the town hasn’t, he said, completed enough studies of the development, it might have little defense in a future dispute with Preston.

Out of almost 40 speakers, about three quarters called for a delay or rejection.

Kathie Russell, a neighbor of the development, cut against that grain. She had opposed the project, but said the developer won her over in a meeting last week with his sincerity and by addressing her individual concerns, such as light pollution.

She lamented the town’s division over the issue. “I wish we could give faith to our disagreements,” she said. She was referring to what she described as door-to-door attacks on Voller, which alleged he was “double dealing,” she said.

Tommy Drake, representing UNC Healthcare, spoke in support, saying UNC planned to bring a hospice, medical office and nursing facility to Chatham Park.

Crawford, the losing mayoral candidate, said that while the project concerns him, delaying it could be “dangerous” because it would push away the developer.

Developer open for dialogue

Preston Development Co. has bought about 7,100 acres since 2006, but the project came to Town Hall late last year as Preston entered the town’s formal planning process.

The developer submitted maps of Chatham Park this summer, detailing the wooded trails, town centers and business hubs that it planned. Preston at one time hoped for approval by September.

Pittsboro Matters claims it has collected 600 signatures on a petition calling for a “transparent review process.” Mayor-elect Terry campaigned for more “due diligence” in the consideration of Chatham Park, though he said he’s not anti-Chatham Park.

“Why not take the time to satisfy the citizens, that they’ve been heard?” he said in the meeting’s fourth hour. He asked that the board hire a planning consulting firm.

Tim Smith, the developer, said he’s open for dialogue with residents. But, he conceded: “I don’t see me convincing a lot of you.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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