Developer Tim Smith leaned on the railing of the historic Pittsboro courthouse’s balcony Monday, watching the people – he counted 37 of them – who had come to protest Smith and his Preston Development Co.’s plans.
“Don’t give away our leverage tonight. Don’t give away our community,” a woman called on a bullhorn below. “Table the vote,” read a handwritten sign.
Half the crowd wore red shirts with the sarcastic phrase “PAVE CHATHAM.” They had assembled ahead of the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners’ final round of debate on the master plan for Chatham Park, urging the board to slow down on a community that could bring 60,000 people to Pittsboro over several decades.
“Slow down?” Smith, who co-owns Preston with Julian “Bubba” Rawl, asked aloud. “It’s been 13 months.”
He wouldn’t be waiting much longer. The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners tackled a final set of issues and later voted 4-1 for Preston’s “legacy project.”
Smith’s team has assembled what’s believed to be the largest single development plan in North Carolina’s history, having bought roughly 7,500 acres over nearly a decade. A broad plan for the new community has been under official discussion in the Chatham County town since last year.
In the final review, the elected board ticked through item after item, declining the mayor and one commissioner’s pushes for several changes regarding environmental protections and development density.
Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley questioned the developer’s plans to build near Jordan Lake and the Haw River. She said the developer wanted to build at five times the densities that the town’s land-use plan has recommended near the Haw River since the early ’90s.
“It says one (residential unit) per 5 acres. Not one per 1 acre,” she said, referring to the town’s earlier plans.
She added later that the board should decide “how committed we are to protecting the drinking water for all these different people that depend on the Haw River.”
Commissioner Michael Fiocco said the lower density was meant for well and septic systems, not the connected utilities planned for Chatham Park. The board by a 4-1 vote declined Foley’s move to request a reduction of density or expand buffers, with Foley dissenting.
Next, Mayor Bill Terry decried the project’s density and “minimalistic” plans for natural and park space.
“Asking for the absolute maximum density and absolute minimum of parks and open space does not seem acceptable to me,” said Terry, who did not have a vote on the project, drawing applause from the crowd.
Fiocco contended that the project exceeded the town’s requirements for natural space and argued that it wouldn’t be as dense as some smaller subdivisions in the area. He also argued for the economic benefits of density.
The board again voted 4-1 to accept the plan as it was, with Foley dissenting.
On the topic of parks, Terry questioned whether the plan would inappropriately allow private recreation areas to count toward a fraction of the required parkland for the development. The board voted to strike that allowance, and the developer agreed.
With the plan’s final approval, Pittsboro appears set to follow the development pattern of cities like Reston, Va., Columbia, Md., and Irvine, Calif. Those cities were seeded by single companies in the 1960s and 1970s, their populations today ranging up to 230,000. Pittsboro, of course, already has a long history and a population of 4,000.
“This is a fine opportunity for Pittsboro and Chatham County to gain this economic development,” said Commissioner J.A. Farrell, praising the plan as well thought-out.
“It’s not going to be perfect,” said Commissioner Beth Turner. But she too saw undeniable appeal in the opportunity, she said.
The promise is that a planned city’s “smart growth” will beat the woes of sprawl. Chatham Park’s master plan calls for a web of roads and paths to connect its residential neighborhoods, its high-tech employers, its village centers and historic downtown Pittsboro itself.
The developers also claimed that the rapid evolution of sewage and utility technology will ease the development of Chatham Park. The mayor questioned whether the town could keep up with demand.
Commissioner Pamela Baldwin said the plan met her long-stated goals and would help Pittsboro avoid strip malls popping up everywhere.
“Planned growth. That’s what it’s always been,” she said.
The decision came about three hours into the meeting, with the commissioners splitting 4-1 against Foley. The last minutes of debate centered on how the town and developer would draft further agreements.
“I don’t want to be handed another plan from the developers and nibble around the edges until I’m marginally satisfied with it,” Terry said.
Fiocco argued that the current plan had been through a rigorous debate.
“I think this master plan has matured, and I think it’s the product of a lot of hard work,” he said.
Many of Monday’s questions of governance and planning will play out further over the next two years.
With the approval, the town also may see the first construction on Chatham Park during those next two years. Monday’s vote allows development to begin immediately for up to 5 percent of the project’s residential areas and 15 percent of its commercial space.
The plan’s critics will be watching closely.
“We just ask that you don’t disappoint us,” Terry said as he offered his congratulations. “ Live up to that reputation.”