Pittsboro at crossroads for record-breaking Chatham Park project

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2014 

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Part of the more than 7,000 acres east and south of Hank Chapel Christian Church near Pittsboro would be part of the proposed Chatham Park development that could bring more than 60,000 new residents to Chatham County if completed.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Attend the meeting

    Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners meets at 7 p.m. Monday in the town’s historic courthouse. Critics of the project will rally outside the courthouse at 6 p.m.

— On Monday evening, five people might make a decision that could affect Pittsboro’s next 40 years.

Mayor Bill Terry figures it’s a tossup.

Even after a year of debate, the mayor isn’t sure what the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners thinks of Preston Development Co.’s plan to build Chatham Park, a project that could bring roughly 22,000 homes and five village centers over several decades, multiplying the town’s current population of 4,000.

“I expect there will be considerable discussion before the vote, and, frankly, I have no idea what the outcome will be,” Terry said in a phone interview last week.

Developer Tim Smith, along with his Preston Development Co., and primary investor and software magnate Jim Goodnight, has brought $100 million to bear in Chatham County, buying 7,500 acres wrapping around the eastern side of town.

After a year of formal negotiations, he’s ready to push ahead. But if he was sure of the outcome, he wasn’t admitting it last week.

“I can’t say that I’m confident, but I think we’ve done everything in our power to try to please everyone over,” Smith said.

This is the second time that the master plan for Chatham Park has neared a vote by the town board. The developer’s last push, in November, was stalled by a split vote near midnight and a raucous meeting hall protest.

Now local opinion on plans seems close to even, or its supporters at least are better mobilized, judging by the turnout at a recent public hearing.

With pressure for a decision mounting, the people closest to the process feel Monday’s meeting, or at latest the next, will bring a decision on one of the largest development plans the state has ever seen.

The vote could be a green light for years of planning or construction – and potential legal action from the project’s critics. Or it could bring a surprising setback for the developers, who have worked quietly to win Pittsboro’s trust in recent months.

Flexibility versus protection

The project’s master plan, which is up for a vote now, totals more than 50 pages and describes a future where Pittsboro is a magnet for tech companies and new planning ideas.

The scope of the proposal has drawn reactions in Chatham County ranging from exuberance to resignation.

Many of the plan’s critics say they don’t oppose development on this scale but instead protest that the town may be giving too much power away without proper protections for sensitive environments near Jordan Lake, or for the town’s culture and lifestyle.

“They should design, basically, the outline of their entire development, and they should set aside the land they’re not going to develop on,” said Jeffrey Starkweather, a leader of the group Pittsboro Matters, which has questioned the development.

Currently, Preston’s maps show only large roads and general development densities for swaths of land.

“They can always get the flexibility” later, Starkweather said. “They can revise their plans and re-submit them.”

But Smith, the developer, said that flexibility is crucial now. For example, the developer prefers to set aside much of its open space and natural areas for conservation as it moves through each of dozens of smaller plans, rather than in a lump sum.

Generally, Smith said, “The more detail we give, it locks us into not being able to change over the next 40 years” alongside shifting preferences. He argues that Preston has already shown it will meet and exceed environmental laws for streams and other areas.

Pittsboro Matters, however, wants to see protection from the development extended to the “ephemeral” class of streams, and the group wants steep slopes set aside early. Another sticking point for the group: The developer declined the town board’s request to specifically set aside more than 500 acres near Jordan Lake for “very light” development of one unit per 5 acres, arguing that economic patterns and town rules would properly manage the area.

In response to the board, Preston eliminated housing within 300 feet of the Haw River and set density at one unit per acre from 300 to 500 feet of the river, with increasing density allowed at distances beyond that, according to the developer. That change eliminates 400 housing units, Smith said, though it applies only to the edge of the areas in question.

Soothing the locals

Greg Lewis and Maria Parker-Lewis, owners of the Pittsboro Roadhouse in downtown, said they originally threw their lot in with Pittsboro Matters, the loudest voice questioning Chatham Park.

Their chief concern, they said, has been downtown Pittsboro.

“We had our concerns for our little town,” Greg Lewis said. “Was our town going to die a slow death because of these other five town centers? … Our town already exists. It’s already a hub, already a center.”

They grew more anxious as the months passed that their opinions were going unheard.

Unsure if the town’s commissioners were arguing for their wants, the couple asked about three months ago for a meeting with Smith and his business partner, Julian “Bubba” Rawl.

In a series of subsequent meetings, the development team promised Lewis and Parker-Lewis that their project would complement Pittsboro, leaving the town center as its cultural capital.

They also showed a little of their influence: Developer Smith arranged a meeting between N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, former Mayor Randy Voller, and Parker-Lewis and Lewis, who is also co-chair of the Pittsboro Business Association.

Tata made no promises, Lewis said, but the Pittsboro constituents made a pitch for N.C. DOT to partially fund a long-talked-about revamping of downtown Pittsboro.

Preston now is providing a planning firm, Kimley-Horn, that will work with locals to revise Pittsboro’s plans for improved sidewalks, streetscapes, parking and more, according to Lewis. Smith confirmed his company will help, but not guide, the effort.

That plan should go before the commissioners for review before the town applies for DOT funding, according to town staff.

Preston Development, meanwhile, has broken ground on a downtown Pittsboro office.

These actions all seem to represent a change of tactics for a developer that has interacted relatively rarely with the public.

“I think they underestimated just how connected to our community people in the town and community are,” said Parker-Lewis. “There’s a certain way of life here that we value.”

Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Mayor Terry, who does not have a vote on the project, worries that the town could give away crucial leverage by taking the vote.

Smith said the company would define many small-area details as it goes; experts in the field said this practice is common. But Terry wonders whether the language of the master plan would allow the developer to push future elected boards into approving conditions that leaders don’t like.

“I’m concerned. I’m not so sure … that we’re in the driver’s seat,” said Terry, who might receive 100 emails about the project in a typical day.

“We’re making a decision,” he said, “that board members who aren’t even born yet may have to deal with.”

Smith counters that such a disagreement could happen with any rezoning, and that both the developer and government would have to work at conflicts. That would require a measure of trust and cooperation.

Smith promises a collaborative process over the next few decades. The town’s board would be able to shape each of Chatham Park’s sections like it would any other project, he said.

He also said that residents would help guide the project going forward, in part through a steering committee. But Chatham Park’s critics want to see that kind of conversation now, beyond the public hearings and town meetings, before the town stamps its general approval of the project.

The vote on Monday could bring construction within months to a medical office and limited parts of the project, Smith said. A rejection could send Chatham Park back for heavy revision, or could lead the developer to try to create a separate town. Smith declined to comment on the possibilities.

Starkweather, of Pittsboro Matters, said he’s not “overly optimistic.” His group will consider legal action if the project wins its vote, though he did not name the grounds or objective.

For Lewis and Parker-Lewis, whose Pittsboro Roadhouse restaurant stands just across the street from the historic courthouse where the decision will be made, the feeling is split between optimism and uneasiness.

They have faith in the developers, they said, but they worry that the town is not ready for what’s coming.

“Tim (Smith) and Bubba (Rawl) could be the greatest guys in the world, you know, and every word they say could be as good as gold,” Lewis said. “The question is: Who’s going to be around to see it through?”

Kenney: 919-829-4870 Twitter: @KenneyNC

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