At 7,000 acres, Chatham Park would change the face of small-town Pittsboro

| July 24, 2013
Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
- Photo by Justin Cook
Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
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If a colossal development is approved, Pittsboro, population 4,000, known for its quaint streets and pastoral byways, could have as many people as Rocky Mount within the next 35 years.

Spanning 7,000 acres, Chatham Park starts north near Bynum, then stretches south along the Haw River to East Pittsboro and continues all the way to Moncure. If fully built, the mixed-use development will increase Pittsboro's population to more than 60,000 people over the next 30 to 40 years. With 22,000 homes and more than 13 million square feet of research and development space, it would be the largest development in Chatham County history.

"I am not opposed to Chatham Park and I am not opposed to growth. However, I want to know who will control the growth," said Pittsboro resident Miriam Pollard. She was among 30 people who signed up to speak before Town Board of Commissioners at Monday's packed public hearing about rezoning land for the development.

Commissioners have not voted on the proposal.

Pollard echoes the sentiment of many Pittsboro residents who are concerned that developers are controlling the agenda while Pittsboro rubber-stamps the plans. "When I'm 100, I want to see that Pittsboro has retained its character and charm," she said.

Town commissioners are reviewing Chatham Park for rezoning as a planned development district (PDD). The zoning designation relaxes regulations to give developers greater freedom for large projects. In return, developers are supposed to promote "quality urban design and environmentally sensitive development by allowing development to take advantage of special site characteristics, locations and land uses," according to town documents.

While the project has been in the planning stages for some time, it picked up momentum this year. In February, Pittsboro added nearly 2,000 acres to its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) to bring all Chatham Park land under town rules. In April, the town adopted the new regulations establishing PDD zoning; Chatham Park is the first to apply. Developers submitted a master plan in May, outlining some of the plans for utilities, transportation, parks and schools. (See pittsboronc.gov for the master plan's 36 pages of dense text and additional maps.)

Preston Development Company, a Cary-based firm, owns Chatham Park Investors LLC. Since 2006, it has been buying land in Chatham County with the financial backing of Jim Goodnight and John Sall of SAS Institute. Chatham Park Investors has been meeting with Pittsboro's planning board and commissioners for years to discuss the project, said Philip Culpepper, consulting planner for Chatham Park Investors.

"We envision a live-work-play environment where you live with research centers, shopping, hospitals, and you can bike or walk to your job site. You can go to the park and play, walk down to the river and have lunch," said Tim Smith, an owner of Preston Development Company.

As of the 2010 census, Pittsboro consisted of a mere 1,480 households, with one town planner and one engineer. Residents question whether their small-town government is up to the task of managing such a project.

"I think we are better suited than any region in terms of our citizens," said Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, arguing that a development this large would be a challenge for any municipality to manage. "We have highly informed, educated and interested citizens who are willing to take part in the process, and I think ultimately that's going to help us shape our future."

"It's incumbent upon us to shape this into something that is reflective of what we want," he added. "We need to be in control of our own destiny."

If the project is approved, first to break ground will be a 25,000-square-foot parcel across from Northwood High School for UNC medical clinics. The land is already zoned for this use and has existing sewer and water lines. The site plan could be presented to the town planning department within the next 30 days. Chatham Park is also partnering with Strata Solar, a local company, to bring a 20-megawatt solar farm to the development.

David Scott, president of Chatham Habitat for Humanity's board of directors, told town commissioners the development should include affordable housing, with 15 percent of all homes in Chatham Park designated for this use. "We strongly support the mixed-use aspect of Chatham Park; however, without affordable housing in the mix, it will only be affluent newcomers who benefit," he said.

Timothy Keim, Pittsboro resident and representative from the nonprofit group Friends of the Rocky River, said Chatham Park developers should fund a study soliciting input from residents within five miles of the proposed project. "Is this what Chatham residents want?" he asked. "Is this development going to pay for itself or it is going to be on the people of Chatham County and Pittsboro?"

Longtime town resident Kate Ladd lives off East Thompson Street. She examined a map of Chatham Park and was surprised to discover that it will be a mere 18 feet from the back corner of her house. "I want to see them be good neighbors," she said, handing a picture of her back yard to Mayor Voller. Right now, her yard is just trees.

Several environmental groups would like to see it remain that way. "The whole project is on a sensitive area for water quality and wildlife," said Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy. The group conducted an independent study in 2008 and recommended key conservation areas in Chatham Park remain untouched.

The next step for Chatham Park is negotiate a development agreement with the town, legally establishing who is responsible for aspects such as water and sewer. Developers, elected officials and community members agree on one thing: How the town negotiates with Chatham Park will change the course of Pittsboro.

"I fear the future of Pittsboro will be wholly shaped by Preston Development," said Kenneth Jackson, a Pittsboro resident who spoke at the meeting. "Pittsboro does not belong to them—it belongs to us. This is the future of our town."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pittsboro, meet sprawl."

Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
- Photo by Justin Cook
Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
Chatham Park would change Pittsboro's landscape from rural to suburbia.
- Photo by Justin Cook

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Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Goodbye Pittsboro, Hello Pittsburgh.

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Posted by Will Wilson on 07/24/2013 at 2:07 PM

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10…

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10…

Net inter-county migration stream 2005-2009 and ratio of in/out migration. US Census, American Community Survey. Provides initial "site and situation" against which one can project the radical changes proposed for Chatham Cnty by Chatham Park.

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Posted by bob mcconnaughey on 07/24/2013 at 1:58 PM

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10…

Proposed limit of 70% impervious surface in Chatham Park compared with estimated impervious surface area in 20 major US cities.
from "Tree and impervious cover change in U.S. cities", Nowak, D & Greenfield, USDA Forest service, "Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 11 (2012) 21-30
apologies, prior link disappeared when i added the reference.

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Posted by bob mcconnaughey on 07/24/2013 at 1:04 PM

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10…
Proposed limit of 70% impervious surface in Chatham Park compared with estimated impervious surface area in 20 major US cities.
from "Tree and impervious cover change in U.S. cities", Nowak, D & Greenfield, USDA Forest service, "Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 11 (2012) 21-30

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Posted by bob mcconnaughey on 07/24/2013 at 12:53 PM

I agree with Griselda, I wish there could be more space for this story, although I'm sure the Indy will devote plenty of space to the project as it develops. Even if it is assumed that tiny Pittsboro can handle the zoning an annexing of such a monumental project involving fire departments, police, hospitals, schools, libraries, sewer/water, utilities, roads, waste management, taxes, mail and more (which is not at all a decent assumption), there are significant environmental concerns to consider. Preston Development has stated there will be an AVERAGE buffer of 200ft along streams and the Haw River. This buffer zone could very well be only 50 feet in some locations, resulting in major potential riparian zone disruption. The Triangle Land Conservancy (whom I am unaffiliated with) has performed an extensive study of the environmental impact. They recommend a buffer of at least 1000 ft in all locations, but so far Preston Development hasn't even made their own environmental impact statement.

The video announcing the project on Preston's website focuses on the river and the wide forests surrounding it, not on the vast swaths of asphalt and concrete that will soon blanket the area. Preston has set aside approximately 200 acres for parks. this represents less than 3% of the development's area. Preston Development needs to assure the public that they can be suitable stewards of the local environment and biodiversity before the public will come together in support of this project.

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Posted by Spencer Nelson on 07/24/2013 at 11:03 AM

It's a pity that the reporter was not allowed more space, even in the online version, to do this subject justice. The status is that the Town has held two hearings (i.e. one hearing that was continued from June 24 to July 22), and the Planning Board simply recommended approval with no revisions in spite of the many defects in the Master Plan (text), proposed incredibly high density in immmediate Jordan Lake watershed, and so on, all identified at the first hearing (as well as at the second. For those willing to look into both what is proposed and what has already been found deficient, the Town's website, linked to in this article, has a record of the first hearing as part of 6/24 minutes and much else as part of its agenda page for this last meeting/hearing, of 7/22. The Town's next meeting is August 12th. Because the land acquisition has taken years and much has been speculated about this project, many people are unaware of what is actually proposed (radically different than the combined grapevine/Preston Development PR. Many more people, sadly, know nothing at all.

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Posted by griselda on 07/24/2013 at 9:36 AM
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