Chatham County

Pittsboro regroups after contentious Chatham Park delay

Mary Lucas, who lives outside Pittsboro, talks to developer Tim Smith during a break from a marathon meeting in Pittsboro on Monday night. Lucas has been critical of Smith’s proposal to multiply Pittsboro’s population by up to 20.
Mary Lucas, who lives outside Pittsboro, talks to developer Tim Smith during a break from a marathon meeting in Pittsboro on Monday night. Lucas has been critical of Smith’s proposal to multiply Pittsboro’s population by up to 20.

For all its size – the equivalent of a new city for the Triangle – Chatham Park faced little challenge from Pittsboro’s town government until this week.

Yet just past midnight Tuesday morning, as Mayor Randy Voller’s tenure as mayor expired and developer Tim Smith shook his head in apparent disapproval, the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners split for the first time in its consideration of Preston Development Co.’s plan to bring up to 60,000 residents and scores of new businesses to the town over several decades.

By a 4-1 vote, the board tabled a revised master plan for the development, electing to hire a consultant and vote early next year on the proposal, which is essentially a massive rezoning that grants the developer broader-than-usual freedom in planning. It’s unclear whether the vote will be a turning point or a minor delay for the 7,100-acre project, which is backed by Cary software magnate Jim Goodnight’s money, according to developer Smith.

Supporters of the measure said that an approved master plan would secure a well-planned future for Pittsboro, while giving the town time and authority to suss out the details. But some opposing commissioners said they'd heard too much public protest and had too little time to consider the latest master plan, which was placed on the agenda last Friday. Commissioner Beth Turner said she first saw the document Thursday.

“That was a little surprising for a development this large,” Turner said.

The mayor had pushed the board to give broad approval to Chatham Park on Monday night, during his last meeting as mayor, according to board members.

Voller didn’t run for re-election, so the meeting was his chance to set in motion the project that has grown over seven years to dominate Voller’s eight-year tenure. He said the vote was meant to free the board from a “hostage situation” where it would be caught between protesters and developers.

“I’ve been talking about the eventuality of Chatham Park since the 2009 election,” he said Monday. “Apparently I failed.”

The decision to delay the vote for months came after five hours of discussion – mostly the arguments of dozens of Pittsboro residents and nearby landowners – and the strain between neighbors was obvious among the crowd of about 200. A few said the project would bring needed business and residents to Pittsboro, but most called for more time, or said that the project would bring environmental or economic ruin.

And while many critics praised Voller’s elected service, and the mayor called speakers by first name, some in the audience grew discontented in the meeting’s last hour. The packed courthouse crowd began to grumble, then shout, as Voller delivered a speech of more than 30 minutes about Pittsboro’s history, the project’s details and his time as mayor, among other topics.

“This is a filibuster!” someone cried from the crowd. “I have to go to work tomorrow!” came another shout.

The mayor carried on. He had listened to many hours of public input on Chatham Park, and countless more on other projects, and he would speak his mind, he said.

Commissioner Michael Fiocco also argued for approval, which would show “good faith,” he said. “The best way to do that is to work with them, not against them,” he said.

Ultimately, though, Voller’s last meeting wouldn’t go his way. As midnight passed, the commissioners announced their votes one by one. Commissioner Jay Farrell said he was “overwhelmed” by the project, while Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley said she wanted to make sure the town could meet the water demands of the project, among other concerns.

Pittsboro’s mayor doesn’t vote on board matters, so the only person to call for an immediate decision was Fiocco, who has been a point person of sorts in the board’s negotiations with Preston.

The town has won several points in those negotiations: The revised rezoning now requires the developer to submit master plans on transit, open space, public art and affordable housing.

And the developer, according to Voller, has agreed to a carbon-neutral development, balancing out its impact on the planet’s atmosphere; to buy all its public art locally; and to fund an expansion of the town’s planning department.

Fiocco said that he was comfortable with the current plan, and Voller wanted to place the item on Monday’s agenda, so they proceeded. Asked whether the short notice for other board members was a tactical mistake, Fiocco said he hadn’t considered the thought.

“I wouldn’t say I was confident,” he said later. “I was hopeful.”

Voller has warned that the developer could circumvent the town if the project is delayed too long, perhaps by creating a new municipality. That’s legally possible, if a majority of the state legislature agrees. But Turner, the commissioner, said she’d heard no threats or rumblings of the sort from Smith.

Mayor-elect Bill Terry, who takes office in December, took the lectern at the meeting’s end. Terry, a former Pittsboro town manager, spelled out a plan for the board to begin a new consideration of Chatham Park, and the search for an independent consultant, as early as next month.

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