More than 400 Chatham residents armed with citizen outrage, clever slogans and demands for public records rallied around the Pittsboro courthouse and stormed a commissioners meeting on Jan. 20.
"We are fed up!" Haw River Assembly leader Elaine Chiosso shouted through a megaphone outside, to loud applause, whistles, stomping and drum beats. "We've never seen anything like this board of commissioners."
Chiosso, one of about a half-dozen speakers on the lawn before the meeting, led the crowd in several chants: "Take back our county!" and "People before profits!"
Citizens alarmed by the smooth ride that real estate, building and other business interests have been getting under the current board of commissioners turned out to urge their elected leaders to listen to their concerns, including: a rewrite of a proposed growth-control ordinance by the county attorney, Bob Gunn; pending rezonings that would put more houses per acre in the critical Jordan Lake watershed; proposed upscale residential mega-developments, some complete with golf courses; industrial pollution in southeast Chatham; expansion of the Wooten asphalt plant; and recent approval of a strip mall on U.S. 15-501 over the objections of 1,300 petition signers.
"The citizens of this county are disenfranchised and they have no one to turn to," Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities leader Loyse Hurley told the commissioners inside, while a capacity crowd of 300 held up copies of the Jan. 7 issue of the Independent Weekly, headlined "Sold Out: How Developers Bought Chatham County" (indyweek.com/durham/2004-01-07/cover.html). The story details the money the development industry has begun to pour into county politics, and the role people connected to the development industry are now playing on public boards. Hurley, whose group was one of three organizing the rally, then handed commissioners 1,114 letters protesting the revised draft of the compact communities ordinance, or CCO for short, written by Gunn that wiped out most of the work a citizens group spent two years refining.
"The county commissioners are being derelict in their duties to the people who elected them," Chatham County United leader Patrick Barnes told the five commissioners, who sat through all the criticisms somewhat stonily until Chairman Tommy Emerson lost his temper at the crowd's enthusiasm for Barnes' speech.
"I thought we had an understanding that we're going have some courtesy and respect," a red-faced Emerson said, launching out of his seat and shaking a finger at the crowd, where one audience member held a poster proclaiming: "Tommy, Can You Hear Me?"
"We had an understanding that you all would do your job!" a woman in the audience shouted back.
The final speaker on growth issues, Jeffrey Starkweather, presented a two-page written request to commissioners to produce all public records relating to the drafting of the CCO, including correspondence among commissioners, planning staff and private developers, such as the California corporation that wants to build the controversial Briar Chapel subdivision.
"Many residents have lost trust in the Chatham County commissioners," Starkweather said, handing over the records request on behalf of Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, Chatham County United and the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council. While the meeting progressed inside, another 100 or more residents continued the rally outside, where the sounds of music, speeches, and car horns drifted up to the second-floor courtroom.
Citizens from Pittsboro, Bear Creek, Silk Hope, Polk's Landing, Bennett and other communities across the county paraded signs large and small expressing their frustration: "Not Anti-Growth, Just Pro-Planning," "This Gunn is Firing Blanks," "Will the Last Developer out of Chatham Please Turn Out the Lights?," "Buck Funkey," and "We Need a Phillips to Remove This Screw."
"It's all who comes in with the most money and the most lawyers--the process is tainted," said resident Charles Cicero, who recently joined the growing citizen movement. "How many golf courses does Chatham County really need?"