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The Real Winners in Chatham: Developers

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Since Bunkey Morgan won the Democratic primary for county commissioner on Sept. 10, things are looking up in Chatham County. Well, for the developers, anyway.

"The election, from a business standpoint, had a positive outcome," says Raleigh real estate magnate Tommy Fonville. "Bunkey is a more pro-business, pro-growth person, and I think that's positive."

Fonville's not just an idle observer gazing over the line from Wake County. He and his partners have amassed more than 2,000 Chatham County acres valued at nearly $5 million recently, according to tax records--land they plan to turn into houses and profits.

"I certainly feel like the market spoke," says Fonville, the founder of Fonville Morisey Realty in Raleigh and a partner in numerous other real-estate-related companies. Local leaders quote Fonville as boasting that he plans to build "the signature development of his career" on the land he's bought along the Haw River in north-central Chatham, but Fonville declines to elaborate beyond noting that his main line of business is new residential development.

Morgan's ouster of progressive incumbent Commissioners Chairman Gary Phillips, along with the re-election of conservative incumbent Democrat Carl Outz and newcomer Tommy Emerson, shifts the five-member board to a much more builder-friendly majority as Chatham leaders face a pressure-cooker of growth debates and begin crafting a long-range land-use plan.

(Both Outz and Morgan face Republican competitors in the general election, and Morgan also faces a Libertarian, but both Democrats are expected to win.)

Morgan's well-coordinated battle to unseat Phillips was littered with legal challenges and complaints of dirty campaign tactics that kept flowing even after the votes were tallied.

But 5,086 voters apparently overlooked the fact that Morgan says he lives in a rented house in Silk Hope while his wife and family remain at his Apex family complex, as well as blemishes on his business record such as delinquent taxes. Morgan, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican in District 1 in 2000, won the District 4 Democratic primary by 320 votes, an only slightly smaller margin than the 392 voters who have registered as or changed to "unaffiliated" since the first of the year.

Chatham commissioners are elected countywide, though they are supposed to reside in the district they represent, and Morgan's backers drummed up plenty of support in Siler City, Goldston and the rural precincts by appealing to conservatives not to let progressive voters in the Pittsboro area control Chatham's future. Phillips, considered by growth-control advocates to be the keystone force holding off mega-developments like the 2,700-home Briar Chapel subdivision defeated this year, didn't campaign effectively outside his home geographical and ideological bases, feeding the Morgan campaign's portrayal of the one-term incumbent as a radical leftist.

Morgan's supporters in the building industry include Pittsboro-based developer Ricky Spoon, who builds residential and commercial projects all over Chatham, including the Bobcat Point subdivision near Silk Hope and a planned commercial strip at the intersection of U.S. 64 Bypass and U.S. 15-501 just north of Pittsboro.

"Bunkey actually sees the real world in action. He's a businessman and he understands the needs of the county," says Spoon, who grew up in the rural Chatham hamlet of Bennett. "And he lives in the part of the county that's growing, over near Apex, and that's important, because it means he understands growth."

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