A group opposed to the planned Chatham Park development wants the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to insert itself into the planning process for the 7,000-acre project.
At the same time, the commissioners are considering getting more involved in zoning issues across the entire county. Many rural, unincorporated areas aren’t zoned, but the commissioners and the county’s planning board have begun looking into changing that.
Both issues – the rural zoning fight and the request from Chatham Park opponents – dominated the commissioner’s meeting Monday night, when 40 people spoke.
Members of Pittsboro Matters, a group that has twice sued the town over its handling of the zoning and approval process for Chatham Park, urged commissioners to force themselves into the planning process that has been handled entirely by the town up to now.
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“In the end it’s not Pittsboro that’s going to pay the piper for Chatham Park,” local resident Mike Watkins said. “It’s Chatham County, and Chatham County taxpayers.”
Jeffrey Starkweather and Amanda Robertson, co-founders of Pittsboro Matters, both said the county has the legal authority to create such a joint planning process.
The land for Chatham Park is in Pittsboro’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which means the town controls it but people who live there are technically residents of the county, not the town.
“Pittsboro’s elected officials failed to be responsible stewards in their approval of the Chatham Park master plan,” Starkweather said. “ETJ residents have no voice, and no recourse, because they cannot vote in Pittsboro’s municipal elections.”
Both Pittsboro Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck and Chatham County Manager Charlie Horne said Tuesday they had no immediate plans to combine forces.
Gruesbeck said Pittsboro’s six-member planning board has three members from the ETJ, so there is representation. He also said the town will “continue to work with all residents, continue to listen to anyone who wishes to give us input.”
Horne said he wasn’t sure the county even has enough planning employees to add Chatham Park to the existing workload.
“That was just some suggestion by Pittsboro Matters folks,” Horne said. “We’re not even close to the staffing level for that.”
Staffing aside, Horne said he would be surprised if anything came of the idea before the ongoing legal battles between Pittsboro and Pittsboro Matters are resolved.
Chatham County did create a joint planning agreement with Cary several years ago, when development began creeping in from Wake County. On Monday, Robertson cited that precedent and presented five requests from Pittsboro Matters to the county, including a joint planning agreement with Pittsboro.
“If Pittsboro refuses to cooperate with Chatham County then the county could proceed to take back some or all of Chatham Park,” Robertson’s letter said. “Taking this action would give Chatham County much greater control over planning and development activities undertaken by Chatham Park Investors.”
Pittsboro’s elected officials are largely in favor of Chatham Park, which could bring tens of thousands of residents, along with billions of dollars in investment, to eastern Chatham County. The county commissioners have more environmentally inclined members, after November’s elections swept Democrats into power for the first time in years.
With their new-found power, the Democratic majority is also considering rezoning rural land in unincorporated Chatham County, which is currently unzoned.
But opponents of that sweeping plan turned out in force Monday. They said county-level zoning would hurt large landowners – particularly farmers and those in the timber business – who overwhelmingly live in western Chatham County.
“How many times do you folks need to be told about how folks on my side of the county feel about being told what to do,” asked Karl Ernst, a Siler City resident and former planning board chairman.
Beyond restricting landowner rights, some said they feared the move would hurt farmers and others who make side incomes by repairing vehicles or building furniture at their homes – since those uses could be prohibited by certain types of zoning.
“It’s supposed to be a free country, and the way it looks like to me, we’re trying to turn Chatham County into Russia or something,” said A.P. Culberson, a dairy farmer on 600 acres of land west of Pittsboro.