CORRECTION: The last public hearing on the fate of Chatham Park was in November. Previous versions of this article had said December. Correction made on Thursday, May 22, 2014.
PITTSBORO -- With dueling choruses of critics and supporters, the Chatham Park project on Tuesday cleared the last likely hurdle before its potential approval. More than 70 people signed up to speak at the podium of Pittsboro’s old courthouse for a final public debate about Preston Development Co.’s master plan for a city-size development wrapping around eastern Pittsboro.
Unlike the last public hearing, in November, there were no signs, no shouts from the audience and few T-shirts with printed messages. People still had plenty to say, covering topics as diverse as forest growth rates and economic distress.
The speakers, largely consisting of residents of Pittsboro and surrounding areas, tended to argue past each other. Critics often dove into the rules and nitty-gritty of the plan, while many supporters argued for the project’s broad economic promise.
Dick Winokur, for example, saw a chance for Pittsboro to establish its future.
“I’ve seen over and over again where opportunities like this were passed by,” he said. “It gives an opportunity for our children and our grandchildren to stay in the community, work in the community and improve our community.”
Cathy Holt, by contrast, worried promises of environmental protection and sound planning could erode with time. “All these protections for our quality of life that we have here have to be down on paper, not promises,” she said.
Moya Hallstein said the project should embrace more cutting-edge planning ideas, such as embedding farms in residential areas. Others worried that the change brought by Chatham Park’s 20,000-plus homes and five village centers would simply be too great.
“I am very much concerned about maintaining why all of us feel comfortable here,” said Mary Phyllis Horn, arguing that artists, musicians and her therapy clients feel a special connection with Pittsboro and its woods. A representative of the developer said Preston would preserve the town’s history and traditions, such as live music and good food.
Pittsboro Matters, the most-unified voice questioning the developer, again called for further study and more information. Among its requests, the group asked:
• That the developer pay before the project’s approval to study its social and economic effects.
• That the developer establish affordable housing.
• That the developer study its traffic impact, with an eye toward protecting downtown.
• That the developer robustly protect streams and sensitive environmental areas.
Philip Culpepper, a representative for the developer, questioned his critics’ intentions. “That’s their only goal, is to kill Chatham Park,” he said in an interview. “They will cover it up with ‘study, affordable housing, local contractors,’ every condition they can think to do.”
Culpepper said the company will look into affordable housing and has in previous projects donated land to groups such as Habitat for Humanity. However, he rebuffed the suggestion of a policy requiring certain units be built for people with lower incomes.
“There’s not a townwide (affordable housing) policy. There’s not a townwide ordinance,” he said. “We believe we should be treated the same way as the rest of the town, not to put the finger on us because ... they think there are wealthy people behind it.”
He said the project already has a comprehensive transportation plan but that detailed plans would come with actual development. The project generally will avoid the cul-de-sac model, Culpepper said.
Finally, he pushed back against the idea that the town of Pittsboro would give up any decision-making power in approving the master plan. He claimed that the town board would have the same power to shape each phase of the project as it would any other individual development.
Meanwhile, some at the public hearing argued for more-careful planning now.
Carolyn Elfland, a planning board member and a retired associate vice chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, warned that the current plan effectively could give the town’s planning board only 15 days to review the numerous small-area plans that will make up the phases of Chatham Park.
Mary Lucas, a frequent critic, said she wanted detailed information on the streams and steep slopes inside Preston’s 7,500 acres, and she criticized the developer’s decision not to buffer ephemeral streams, which only flow at times and which she argued are particularly important. Culpepper said the company is working with the town to survey streams.
Ann Silverman, a Chatham County resident, summed up the town’s mood like this:
“It seems to me,” she said, “that there’s a huge potential here for shared excitement that sometimes gets overshadowed by healthy measures of trepidation and some less-healthy measures of distress.”
The board had not yet scheduled its potential vote on the project by 10 p.m.