Something happened in Pittsboro politics this fall. On Nov. 8, challenger Randy Voller upset Mayor Nancy May, squeaking by her with a margin of just 17 votes, while political newcomer Pamela Baldwin soundly trounced an incumbent to claim top-vote-getter status and one of the two open seats on the council.
Voller and Baldwin both rode to victory on the support of Pittsboro Together, a new progressive political action committee that raised nearly $2,500 and found itself--and the candidates it endorsed--the target of some nasty last-minute attacks.
All this in a town where just 560 voters decided the outcome of the election. It's a small number, but those voters represent a whopping 32 percent turnout that puts the rest of the Triangle's larger municipalities to shame.
To what factors, exactly, Voller and Baldwin owe their successes is a matter of much debate in Chatham, where the county seat is much better known as a hotbed for antiques than for politics. The ousting of an incumbent mayor, a turnout nearly twice the level of the last few municipal elections, and the success of a brand new PAC that got two of its three candidates into office has tongues wagging in local coffee shops, hometown newspapers and Chatham's highly populated online community.
One thing's for sure: With residential and commercial developments getting the rapid rubber stamp in both the town's planning jurisdiction and across the eastern half of the county that abuts its borders, growth is on everyone's minds.
"Pittsboro is the heart of Chatham County, and for a long time, Pittsboro sat on its haunches and didn't play a lead role," says mayor-elect Voller, who will take his seat next month. "This victory speaks to the issues that need to be addressed."
Those issues, Voller and his supporters say, include municipal water and sewer infrastructure that is long overdue for updating and ill-equipped to accommodate the capacity needed to serve the rolling tide of new houses and businesses covering the landscape. Developments already approved include the 1,500-home River Oaks residential development due to take shape northeast of town over the next decade. Planned by the Toll Brothers, the enormous national company that built Brier Creek in neighboring Wake County, River Oaks is expected to more than double the 2,500-person population of Pittsboro. Other projects include mixed-used developments already under construction just north of downtown at the intersection of U.S. 64 bypass and U.S. 15-501 and numerous small residential subdivisions now pending in the planning department.
"You're going to have change and development," says Voller. "It's a question of what kind and where, not a matter of 'if.'"
To that end, Pittsboro Together supported a slate of candidates with a progressive platform, calling for planned growth, open government, sustainable economic development and a vibrant downtown. Combating the side effects of unchecked residential construction is high on the group's to-do list, which acknowledges Pittsboro's fast-track to "bedroom community" status and the "whims of outside development interests" that contribute to the town's existing problems, such as aging water and sewer lines and a lack of amenities such as parks.
Here's the ironic part: Voller's a residential developer.
A resident of Chatham since 2002, Voller is the developer of Chatham Forest, a 100-acre, 200-home subdivision that incorporates environmentally friendly building practices.
Chris Boyce, who lives in Chatham Forest, says Voller put his money where his mouth is when it came to well-planned, environmentally sound development in his new neighborhood.
"Randy is the first developer I've met with progressive values," says Boyce, who worked hard to elect Voller in his role as treasurer of Pittsboro Together.
While Voller squeaked past two-term incumbent Nancy May, Pittsboro Together scored a resounding victory in its support for Pamela Baldwin. Baldwin, a lifelong Chatham resident and graduate of Northwood High School and N.C. State University, will be the first African American to serve on the town board since 1979. This was her first run at elected office, but Baldwin was a key player in the successful Chatham County school board campaign of Norman Clark in 2004.
Pittsboro Together's third candidate was unsuccessful challenger Efrain Ramirez, who came in third behind Chris Walker, an incumbent who secured a second term on the town board by a margin of 38 votes.
With the new winners scheduled to take their seats next month, Pittsboro's newest political players will turn their agenda to next year's Chatham County commissioners' race, which begins with candidate filing Feb. 13 and a primary on May 2. Three of the five commissioners' seats are up for grabs, including the one held by controversial Chairman Bunkey Morgan, so the 2006 contest promises a referendum on the fast pace of development supported by the current majority.
How the hotly contested municipal race and grassroots political organizing in Pittsboro this fall will translate into activism at the countywide level next year remains to be seen, but the victors say the county seat isn't sitting on the sidelines anymore.
"People are concerned that the character of this county they love--whether they grew up here or just moved here--is going to be changed irrevocably," says Pittsboro's new mayor-elect. "We've been finding the identity of Pittsboro: Who are we? What are we? And that's what Chatham County's 2006 election will be about, too."