Everyone, please, a moment of silence around the Triangle to honor the passing of northeastern Chatham County's way of life. Bye-bye, 1,600 acres of mostly undisturbed woodlands and pastures. Bye-bye, any plan to get out of second gear on U.S. 15-501 during rush hour. Bye-bye, the hope that the Triangle's bucolic southwestern neighbor had any chance of holding out against the suburban sprawl that envelops the rest of us.
Hello, 6,000 new neighbors buying 2,400 new homes at up to $1 million each. Hello, three new "commercial centers." Hello, the mother of all bedroom communities, a new "town" roughly the population of Siler City, Chatham County's largest actual municipality.
In a vote whose only surprise was new commissioner Mike Cross joining the majority of "ayes," the mega-project known as Briar Chapel got its final green light from Chatham County on Feb. 15.
Situated five miles south of Chapel Hill and 10 miles north of Pittsboro, the controversial proposal from California developer Newland Communities has become the poster child for Chatham's changing future. Newland has spent three years trying to turn the political tide since a different board of commissioners rejected its first proposal in May 2002, sparking public debate about the costs and benefits of residential growth. Since the 4-1 vote this month, Briar Chapel will emerge from the drawing board to the bulldozers over the next decade--along with nearly a dozen other smaller residential and commercial developments the board has approved in the northeastern corridor of Chatham over the last two years, and several more within the Pittsboro town limits.
"This is a really slippery slope for this county," says Rita Spina, vice president of Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, a grassroots group that advocates slower, better-planned growth. "The mistakes being made now will be coming home to roost."
The plan offers some concessions to the public interest, such as sites for a county school and a charter school, a fire station and a sheriff's office. Newland also committed to providing some affordable housing and a public library, but as of the vote, those details hadn't been ironed out yet. Neither had the exact arrangements over the impact fee each new house would contribute to the county coffers.
Despite the unsettled questions--and the planning director's advice that the vote be postponed--Commissioner Carl Outz argued it was unfair to Newland to delay any further.
"I don't think another developer in North Carolina has waited this long for a yes or a no," said Outz. As a P.S., though, he added: "I despise traffic as much as anyone."
Commissioner Patrick Barnes cast the only dissenting vote, which he prefaced earlier in the evening by strong words for Newland and the effects its mega-project will bring.
"The human race is the only species that fouls its own nest and then continues to live in it," said Barnes, who joined the board in December after campaigning on a growth-control platform. "If Newland is as good as they say they are, I'd like to see them go back to Florida or to California. I might visit where they came from, but I damn sure don't want to live there."
Barnes' comments brought several rounds of applause from the standing-room only audience of about 300, many of them wearing stickers and buttons proclaiming their opposition.
But Newland had plenty of supporters on hand, too, including the principal and parents from the Woods Charter School--which stands to gain a new home in Briar Chapel--and former Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson, the head of the Home Builders Association of Durham & Orange Counties. Supporters sported "Yes BC" stickers, which were distributed by Newland staffers and consultants who caucused in the corner of the courthouse, one reading New Urban News throughout the meeting and another shaking her head muttering, "He's lying! He's lying!" during Barnes' opposition speech.
The project's approval came as no surprise to anyone following county politics; its success has been assured since development-friendly newcomer Bunkey Morgan swung control of the board by ousting incumbent Gary Phillips, a slow-growth leader.
"The vote on Briar Chapel was decided on Sept. 10, 2002, in the Democratic primary," Cross' campaign manager, David LeGrys, said afterward. LeGrys, who ran on a growth-control platform similar to Phillips', lost his own commissioner bid that same day, failing to unseat Outz in District 3.
The only surprise on Briar Chapel was the change of heart by Cross, who, alongside Barnes, rode a grassroots wave to victory last fall, promising a more critical eye toward development and more public participation in government decision-making.
"In my opinion, it was a better deal," Cross said. "Compact communities are going to be built there. I hate it too, but I can't stop it. If we'd rejected Briar Chapel Tuesday night, we'd just be in court, wasting the county's money--and it would get built anyway. I didn't make the laws, but I've got to do my job by them. I really have worked hard to do the best I could for the people up there."
Cross' vote struck a sour chord with many who supported his campaign last year, prompting a flood of e-mails and public scolding in Chatham's active online community.
"What you didn't consider is that perhaps protecting the best interests of the current Chatham County residents should take precedence over implementing the rushed through, altered, inadequate and imperfect CCO [Compact Communities Ordinance] to benefit the best interests of, first and foremost, a California developer," one resident wrote. "I thought that was why we voted to put you in office."
In response, Cross posted several long explanations on his Web log, assuring supporters that he had no choice, since the project met the CCO, the legal standards for mega-developments adopted before he took office.
Cross says he still believes that so-called "compact communities" should be limited to 1,200 or 1,500 homes. He also points out he took the lead in negotiating the affordable housing component of Briar Chapel. But even that ran into obstacles, with the county unprepared, administratively, to oversee a significant affordable housing project. As of the Feb. 15 vote, Cross was still working with various community nonprofits to finalize details--one of the several facets of the plan still under construction.
Cross' vote fueled speculation in some political circles that, faced with the reality that Briar Chapel was certain to be approved, Cross traded his "yes" for some other gain in the kind of horse-trading that occurs in every political body--perhaps some backing off on a private dump in Moncure, a proposal that launched Cross into local politics when he organized opposition to it five years ago. Asked whether Morgan, Briar Chapel's most powerful ally (who now chairs the commission and has consistently pushed for the dump) courted Cross' support, Cross replied: "No more than I'm courting him--I have things I want to do, too. But I didn't make a deal to vote for Briar Chapel."
Cross, a retired Navy officer, disagreed that he could have voted against the development as a political statement, as he felt urged to do by many supporters, including members of the Chatham Coalition, a slow-growth PAC that raised money and support for him.
"I took an oath to be a Chatham commissioner, not a Chatham Coalition commissioner," Cross said.
Plans for Briar Chapel, including maps, fiscal and environmental impact studies and other details, are available on the county's Web site at www.co.chatham.nc.us/BriarChapel/TableOfContents.htm .