Chatham Park inches toward approval as Pittsboro demands more detail

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2014 

— Even as town officials near consensus on a city-size development plan, they have put up a new demand: Give us more detail.

Preston Development Co. has for months drawn sweeping portraits of a next-generation community, but the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners wants the company to fill in the blanks about the proposed Chatham Park, which could bring 60,000 people to a town of about 4,000.

A series of votes on Monday’s decision cemented the board’s new stance. With dozens of town board suggestions facing it, Preston Development now has its work cut out.

In particular, the elected board wants to see imagery, precedents and an explanation of how frontman Tim Smith will build the “exceptional” place he has described. His project had seemed to be on the verge of approval several months ago, but new Mayor Bill Terry has led a more critical examination of the Chatham Park plan.

Most of the recommendations came from the Lawrence Group, an outside firm that the town paid $12,000 to review the Chatham Park master plan. Philip Culpepper, a consultant for the developer, said he liked some of the suggestions but warned that others could require significant revamping of the project, particularly the suggestion of a “form-based code.”

“Now we have completely different design recommendations coming from the Lawrence Group,” he said at the meeting, which crowded Pittsboro’s town hall with about 50 people. “Not right, not wrong. It’s very different,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Fiocco said that the board was making recommendations, not issuing ultimatums.

“I don’t think this board is saying ‘Take it or leave it.’ I think this board is saying, ‘This is what we want,’ ” he said.

In some cases, the board backed down from the recommendations on the table.

While the elected officials want to see a more specific “vision statement,” they won’t require Preston to lay out architectural standards in the master plan. Instead, the town likely will consider those block-level details as the developer brings chunks of land forward for construction. The developers say they need flexibility, because the project will take 30 years or more to build.

Among other items, the town wants the developer to build more road connections between the existing town and the new project, which would dwarf Pittsboro with its mix of homes, parks, research centers and a string of communal centers. The board also asked that at least 30 percent of the 7,500-acre project be left for open space, and that 10 percent of the land go for parks and recreation.

The board argued about how much leeway to give the developer in some cases. While Fiocco wanted to put no limits on building heights, Terry said the town should keep veto power. Ultimately, the board decided that it wouldn’t give Preston carte blanche.

“It’s easier to grant an exception for a limit. If we reverse that, we have no limitations,” Terry said. “If it were inappropriate or unsafe … I don’t know how you’d justify your rejection.”

Despite the debate, the town’s board seems to be drawing closer to a consensus on Chatham Park, with many more questions about “when” than “if.” Pittsboro Matters, the group most visibly critical of the project, has approved of the town’s new approach, saying it wants to see a more careful consideration of Chatham Park, rather than a total rejection of the plan.

Part of the project already is rolling toward construction. The board on Monday gave a final stamp of approval for a 25,000-square-foot medical office and a 20-bed hospice that are being branded with the “Chatham Park” name. The developer, meanwhile, has spent more than $100 million to buy a swath of land that wraps around Pittsboro.

If the master plan is approved, Preston immediately will have permission to build out a fraction of the homes and commercial areas proposed, even before the small-area plans are finished, assuming water and sewer are available. Lawrence Group had suggested that no early construction be allowed.

Preston has been buying up land for its project since 2006, and it was in talks with town officials through much of that time, according to former Mayor Randy Voller and Tim Smith. Preston Development put its grand master plan on the table in May, beginning a table-tennis match of demands and revisions.

Monday’s meeting also introduced a new player. The board plans to appoint a new citizen review committee to guide Chatham Park.

Developer Tim Smith said the project seems ready to move. His team already was responding to the requests, he said, and he asked that the board set a date for a final vote.

“We’ve got buildings to build,” he said.

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

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