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Chatham Park: jumping the shark?

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Alan Ward, bespectacled and bewildered, paused mid-sentence with the microphone to his lips. Moments earlier, the bookish planner for Chatham Park developers had been outlining the types of housing to be included in the proposed 7,120-acre project east of Pittsboro. Some of the houses would be opulent enough for a doctor to feel at home.

"Where would the janitors live?!" someone in the audience shouted.

"We're looking at accommodating every price point," interjected Tom D'Alesandro, another Chatham Park planner.

Such was the mood at Monday's tense meeting of the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners, where Chatham Park developers formally presented their master plan and zoning application. Commissioners did not vote on the project Monday.

Builders from Cary-based Preston Development Co., with the financial backing of software moguls Jim Goodnight and John Sall of S.A.S. Institute, want to build the vast mixed-use development in undeveloped eastern Chatham County.

Chatham Park would have four mixed-use "village centers," surrounded mostly by residential development. The plan includes 22,000 homes and more than 13 million square feet for research and development.

Under a newly created planned development district (PDD), which allows builders greater flexibility, it would be the largest development in the history of rural Chatham County. Its acreage is the size of about 5,340 football fields or 237 Streets of Southpoint, if you count just the mall's retail space.

Developers envision Chatham Park as a sequel to Research Triangle Park, which has only a few hundred acres of available space, according to Preston's website. The implications for Pittsboro are staggering. If it is fully built, Chatham Park would increase the town's population of about 5,000 to 60,000 in 30 to 40 years, according to town estimates.

The town's 17-employee police department would swell to 168, according to the builder's master plan. Pittsboro, which relies on area volunteer fire departments, would likely require a paid municipal fire department and the construction of multiple stations.

The number of students at Chatham County schools, hovering just above 8,000 today, would increase to 18,000, requiring the construction of eight elementary, two middle and two high schools.

Phillip Culpepper, a consulting planner for the builders, says Chatham Park's residents and businesses would fund the infrastructure improvements through taxes. He added that while the development would require new sewer facilities, the builders would pay for their construction, eventually relinquishing ownership and operation to the town—although that would likely require additional personnel to operate them.

Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller supports the project. He says developers should request annexation from the town, which would help generate property tax revenue. For now, the land lies in Pittsboro's extra-territorial jurisdiction area outside municipal limits, meaning the town has zoning powers, but it cannot collect taxes. "That would go a long way toward developing goodwill within the community," Voller said.

UNC Health Care plans to construct a medical center in the development. Chapel Hill's Strata Solar could begin work on a 20-megawatt solar farm in the next six months, providing enough power for about 2,400 homes, the developer said.

"This is an early indication that companies are looking at Chatham Park and saying, 'We want to be a part of this,'" D'Alesandro said.

Some Pittsboro residents would prefer not to be a part of it. Hundreds turned out at two public hearings this year, many of them critical of the development. Monday's meeting did not include public comment, but activists distributed fliers that demanded town commissioners learn more before approving the project.

Commissioners also received scathing emails from locals, denouncing the Chatham Park "monstrosity."

"Does Jim Goodnight really want to dump a horrible development on the last remaining bit of beauty and good living in the Triangle?" wrote Pittsboro resident Efrain Ramirez. "He would not do this to his home town of Salisbury! So why does he want to do it to my home town (adopted) of Pittsboro, in my county of Chatham?"

A 2008 study by the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) recommended numerous environmental safeguards, including 1,000-foot buffers for the Haw River. Builders proposed an average buffer of 200 feet wide, but in some areas, the development comes within 50 feet of the river.

The plan also proposes to provide 667 acres of parks and open space, far shy of the TLC recommendation of 2,400 conservation acres.

"There is definitely a lot of room in that master plan to incorporate more open space," says Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, TLC's associate director of stewardship and planning.

The project also lies within the Jordan Lake watershed, a polluted reservoir that supplies water to Cary, Apex, Morrisville, RTP South and northern Chatham County. Triangle cities, including Durham, can also draw from the watershed in emergencies.

For some, the Chatham Park controversy is about control over Pittsboro's future. Pittsboro resident Pierre Lauffer says the new zoning gives too much power to Chatham Park. "We would be losing a lot of the power and ammunition that Pittsboro really needs," Lauffer said.

But Voller said the consternation stems from the perception that Chatham Park, which has been in the works for about eight years, is being fast-tracked. Voller insisted that's not true, adding the town is in a "tricky" situation. The developers own the land and they have the right to build on it.

"We're going to end up with some type of project," Voller said. "The question is: Are we going to get a world-class project that is the definition of smart growth? Or do we end up with something that is the worst of all worlds?"

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