The News & Observers Andrew Kenney opened his recent story on a massive development planned for Chatham County by quoting lawyer and pilot Bob Epting quoting Thomas Wolfe. As he gave an aerial tour of the vast, heavily wooded site, Epting said, Thomas Wolfe said, The forest creeps up on Chapel Hill like a great beast, and you can see what he was talking about.
Now the Chatham County town of Pittsboro is sensing the approach of another enormous presence. Its not a forest of trees. Its a forest of homes.
Developer Tim Smith, backed by funding from SAS co-founder and CEO Jim Goodnight one of the 100 richest people in the world wants to build a mega-development in one of the Triangles last, vast stretches of undeveloped private land. The development, called Chatham Park, would be home to 60,000 people and include 22,000 homes and clusters of corporate campuses, all spread across 7,500 acres.
Smith wants Pittsboro to extend its borders to include Chatham Park, a move that would effectively make the town into a different one. With a current population of about 1,500 families, Pittsboro would be swallowed by the community it took in.
The scope of the change has divided the town and moved town officials to delay approval of Chatham Park. Going slow is a wise approach to a proposed change this big, but prolonged delays or rejection of the proposal likely are not options. Smith, the developer behind the well-regarded Wake County golf developments of Preston and Wakefield, knows how to get things built, and he has in Goodnight the funding to find a way. He also has a hefty tax bill to spur him on. Holding on to the $100 million property assemblage is costing $750,000 a year in taxes.
Smiths alternatives to a giant development in Pittsboro include smaller, county-based developments or petitioning the legislature to make the development a town of its own.
The issue for Pittsboro isnt really whether to allow Chatham Park. The issue is how to allow it. The debate should focus on the approval process with an emphasis on shaping Chatham Park into a development that reflects the towns rural heritage and its closeness to the land.
A bold vision
Its fortunate that Smith shares that vision. Chatham Parks master plan calls for development that blends with nature and reduces its carbon footprint through use of solar energy, electric cars and a design that encourages walking. He wants a community thats big, certainly, but also better. He envisions a planned community built on concepts and featuring innovations that developers and planners would come to North Carolina just to see.
While Smith has sketched an appealing vision of a planned community that will grow for decades, there are tough technical issues about expanding Pittsboros utilities and services. There are also issues about public transportation and traffic and the impact of the project on the Haw River and adjacent Jordan Lake, the water supply for 300,000 people.
Pittsboro would be wise to be methodical in listening to its residents concerns about the project and doing all it can to have the plans accommodate those concerns. And Smith would be wise to be patient and to listen. That part of the process appears frayed. Some neighbors feel like their misgivings are being ignored. Pittsboros newly elected Mayor Bill Terry said he understands that Chatham Park could be a community of rare quality, but he said, There are days that I dont feel like were being dealt with as equal partners in the process.
The first part of this development must be developing a strong partnership. Chatham Park should come to Pittsboro as a great asset, not as a great beast.