Opponents of a development project that would transform a large part of eastern Chatham County in coming decades have filed a lawsuit against the town of Pittsboro seeking to stop it.
Pittsboro Matters, a group critical of the proposed Chatham Park project, and a number of people who live or own property near it, want a Superior Court to overturn the rezoning and master plan approval for the project, as well as the town's planned development district ordinance that accommodates it.
The ordinance was written with assistance of Preston Development Co., the company behind Chatham Park, to set the standards and process for the development to come to fruition.
"The lawsuit is essentially saying the ordinance and the master plan were unconstitutionally vague," said Pittsboro Matters board member Jeffrey Starkweather. "It essentially means an ordinary person wouldn't know if they met the standards or not."
Pittsboro commissioners voted 4-1 in June to approve the rezoning and master plan for Chatham Park. The 7,100-acre project between Pittsboro and Jordan Lake could eventually accommodate 55,000 residents in 22,000 homes and 22 million square feet of office, retail and other non-residential space.
The project would dwarf the current town of Pittsboro, which now has about 3,700 residents spread across 2,000 acres.
Amanda Robertson, Pittsboro Matters chairwoman, said the lawsuit aims to hold commissioners responsible for approving a project that will disrupt the town's small-town atmosphere and natural surroundings.
"They've gone against the will of the townspeople," Robertson said. "They say they've given the people a voice, but in fact, the people have spoken and they haven't listened."
Pittsboro commissioner Bett Wilson Foley, who voted against the master plan, declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, as did commissioner Pamela Baldwin. The other three commissioners did not respond to requests for comment.
The cost of defending the lawsuit will not fall on the town. On June 23, after the rezoning and master plan approval, town officials reached an agreement with Chatham Park Investors LLC, the subsidiary of Preston Development behind the project, that the company will pay for and control any legal defense of the approval.
Preston Development's planning consultant Philip Culpepper offered a short statement from company officials Thursday saying they were "disappointed" in the lawsuit.
"We believe that the commissioners did their due diligence prior to taking a vote by holding public hearings, during which residents could express their thoughts and concerns regarding the development," the statement said. "Because this is a legal matter between the complaints and the Town of Pittsboro, it is inappropriate for us to comment further."
Concern for water quality
Environmental issues are the top concern for Pittsboro Matters, according to Robertson. The land used for the development is next to the Haw River, a source of drinking water for the town, which flows into Jordan Lake.
"The lawsuit has nothing to do with money, it has to do with protection," Robertson said. "Sustainable design needs to have core areas for habitat and corridors to connect these. In this modern day, that is hugely important, and they have identified zero."
In addition to Chatham Park's potential impact on Pittsboro and Chatham County, the lawsuit takes issue with how town officials reviewed and approved the project. It claims town officials violated open meetings laws and failed to provide adequate public notice about hearings.
"The heart of the complaint shows that there was a rush to development, in the sense the process for the approval occurred under improper notice of public hearing," said Nick Herman, a lawyer with Brough Law Firm, who is representing the plaintiffs. "Statutes require adequate public notice for these types of proposals."
While the master plan has been approved, Culpepper said the developer still needs to get town approval of various small area plans, individual site and subdivision plans and required development agreements.
Robertson said she hopes the lawsuit will encourage town officials and Preston Development to work with residents to improve the plans for Chatham Park.
"What I'd like to see come out of this is some give on the part of the developer - to see them say 'OK, how can this be a better plan,'" she said. "Because they haven't."
Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed.