Pittsboro mayor on massive Chatham Park development: 'Help us understand'

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

— The debate over Chatham Park still hangs on two ideas: density and size.

While the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners and Preston Development have gone back and forth for months about minute details, the sheer scale of the city-sized development remains the mind-boggling sticking point.

“We’re talking about a project so huge that it’s hard for the average citizen to understand, and I’m one of them,” said Mayor Bill Terry, who doesn’t have a vote on the board. “I guess I’m making a plea for you to help us understand that you’re really not trying to put 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag here.”

A town-hired consultant, Lawrence Group, gave the project a skeptical review last month, asking whether the company really could fit tens of thousands of homes and several commercial and office centers on the 7,500 acres of rural land it has bought east of Pittsboro, a village with a population of 4,000.

Philip Culpepper, a representative for Preston, argued against that suggestion. Lawrence Group’s representative, Craig Lewis, “takes the position that in his experience it can’t be done, that you can’t put 22,000 dwelling units and 22 million square feet in 7,000 acres,” Culpepper said. “Our experience is that it can be done. We’re talking about an urban project. We’re talking about years.”

He described Chatham Park as “the alternative” to traffic-choked suburban sprawl. Commissioner Michael Fiocco made the same point.

“If you look at it from the suburban perspective ... that you won’t get those densities. But if we go for something a little more urban, with transit, walkable, bikeable communities, then I think we can accomplish that,” Fiocco said.

But Culpepper acknowledged the company’s vision for Chatham Park can be hard to grasp.

“It’s really hard to get your head around it. Commissioner (Jay) Farrell has been living in a small town all his life,” said Culpepper, who has been attending Pittsboro’s meetings for the better part of seven years as Preston has planned its “legacy” project.

Terry suggested that a plan fleshed out with more illustrations and details would help. The developer previously had said that the smallest details of the project will change over the decades of construction.

Monday’s discussion was partial at best, and revealed some frustration among board members. Mayor Bill Terry had wanted a Lawrence Group representative on hand to answer questions, but the idea didn’t have the support of the majority of the board.

“I feel like we’re hamstrung tonight,” Terry said. “My fear is that we may have to in some parts revisit this in two weeks,” when a Lawrence Group representative might be available.

He also asked for more information on how Chatham Park would protect land around streams and Jordan Lake. The developer had said it didn’t want to formally incorporate the Southwest Shore Conservation Assessment – an environmental report commissioned by Preston – into its master plan, as Lawrence Group and local environmentalists had asked.

Pittsboro Matters, the group most critical of Chatham Park, early on had pointed to Lawrence Group’s recommendations as a good compromise. Now, weeks later, the group is attacking the developer’s deviation in some places from some of the consultant’s ideas.

“They are essentially telling the town board, ‘Trust us, we know what we are doing better than the national recognized Lawrence Group,’ ” wrote Jeffrey Starkweather, a leader of Pittsboro Matters, in an email. “In our view, not going along with the vast majority of these recommended revisions proposed by an clearly ‘objective’ expert outside consulting firm is essentially selling out Pittsboro and its citizens to the financial interests of an outside developer.”

But Culpepper, the developer’s representative, said the project’s planners are still working with the town through a long process.

“We have given you our responses in writing,” he told the board. “While they might not be the comments that you wished ... or perhaps didn’t address each issue in the way you wanted it addressed … we’re here tonight with you as partners in this project.”

The town board planned to have staff confer with Lawrence Group and the developer about some of the debated parts of the plan. The board is set to again discuss Chatham Park publicly in two weeks.

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

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