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'Chatham residents stand up to money'

After defeating a slate headed by Bunkey Morgan, three candidates say they will improve planning. Meanwhile, developers have seven months until they take office.

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Last week, while Chatham County voters streamed to polling places to wrestle control of their county's future away from real estate profiteers, developer Holland Gaines sold a million dollars' worth of land.

In paperwork filed by real estate attorney Cynthia Sax Perry, Gaines finalized the sale of seven building lots at "The Legacy at Jordan Lake," a pricey gated community he's developing in scenic eastern Chatham.

It's probably a coincidence that Gaines, a Republican who lives in Wake County, was selling lots the same week that commissioners Chairman Bunkey Morgan and his slate were bounced out of office in a landslide upset in Chatham County's Democratic primary. But developers will likely be tying off on deals and tying up loose ends all over Chatham these next seven months. Come December, the public process for approving new houses and shopping centers will become a lot more rigorous as candidates take office promising better planning, more citizen input and less kowtowing to private interests.

"One thing we'll do is ask more of developers," says District 3 Commissioner-Elect George Lucier, who beat Morgan ally Mary Nettles 5,656 to 3,927 in a primary that saw about 28 percent turnout countywide, according to unofficial vote tallies that were being certified at press time. "We got such a good response from voters, we feel pretty confident moving forward with all the things we talked about on the campaign trail."

The three candidates, supported by a wide grassroots effort and an umbrella PAC of citizens' groups called the Chatham Coalition, campaigned on a platform of putting land-use plans in place to direct and shape growth patterns in ways that protect the county's quality of life and its natural resources. They proposed specific planning tools like a "major corridor plan" to define what the county's main highways should look like--before they are overtaken by an endless strip of strip malls--and financial measures such as a land-transfer tax to help pay for county services for newcomers.

The three wore white cowboy hats at their victory celebration on election night, picking up on images of them on the cover of the Independent Weekly the week before the vote ("High noon in Chatham," April 26).

"There are a lot of things we need to do," says Lucier, a former planning board member. "It's good to have a few months to think about it all, so we can hit the ground running in December."

Lucier and District 5 victor Carl Thompson, who beat incumbent Tommy Emerson 6,134-3,609, have no opposition in the general election, while their District 4 ally, Tom Vanderbeck, faces a Republican in the fall after unseating Morgan with 5,936 votes to the current chairman's 3,771.

The three new commissioners will join Patrick Barnes and Mike Cross, who were elected in 2004 with the backing of the same citizen movement that ousted the Morgan slate last week. They can't undo the 10,000 new houses approved over the last four years, but as Lucier puts it, "new projects will clearly have to benefit Chatham County."

Developers who want little scrutiny, rubber-stamped rezonings and maximum profits without having to fit their projects into the county's soon-to-be-revamped land-use plan or spend money on schools, parks and other public amenities will face a much more difficult path.

The Democratic primary was a resounding defeat for those who stand to profit from fewer regulations and industry-sympathetic public policies that have so far governed Chatham's building boom--large landowners, developers, homebuilders and real estate attorneys, many from outside Chatham County. Throughout the spring, they propped up Morgan's unsuccessful re-election bid with big money and indignant public defenses of their candidates in full-page newspaper ads.

A few days before the election, Morgan reported $13,500 in campaign donations--all from professionals in the building and real estate industry in Wake County. He did not report one dollar from a single Chathamite, but folks like Cary's Robert D. Swain gave him the maximum of $4,000. Swain partners with Raleigh real estate magnate Tommy Fonville in large-scale Chatham projects. The pair's recent deals include selling 400 acres that will become "The Parks at Meadowview" subdivision to a Charlotte developer for $9 million in February, according to county land records.

In addition to newspaper ads and cash donations, Morgan's failed slate got support from growth interests in other small ways: Gaines' real estate attorney, Cynthia Sax Perry, served as treasurer for Mary Nettles' campaign.

Perry, who does legal work for many developers, authored a last-minute emotional pitch to voters the night before the election. Without identifying herself as Nettles' campaign treasurer--or as a real estate professional--Perry pleaded with the 2,000 readers of the Chatham Chatlist listserv to "keep the faith" that the rampant, undirected residential growth that marked Morgan's four years in office is nothing but good for the county.

"The county will continue to grow because it is impossible to stop growth and because this is a beautiful place to live and raise children and retire," Perry wrote. "Let's work together to keep that faith rather than slamming the door on the gifts that newcomers can bring."

Voters resoundingly slammed the door on the status quo instead, despite Morgan's generous funding from developers and a $50,000 loan to himself that enabled him to spend nearly $35,000 on political consultant Brad Crone, a Raleigh campaign strategist. Crone, not surprisingly, also orchestrates the public image of two bastions of Morgan support--the statewide and Wake County homebuilders associations.

By contrast, the Chatham Coalition raised more than $33,000 in individual donations averaging $100.

Bynum resident Roland McReynolds, one of the coalition's leaders, put it this way: "This election is proof positive that citizens can stand up to powerful moneyed interests and successfully demand government that nurtures and strengthens the people it serves."

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