by Jess Clark
Pittsboro residents didn’t expect the controversial Chatham Park development to be on the agenda at last night’s Board of Commissioners meeting, and they didn’t expect Mayor Randy Voller to cry.
It wasn’t exactly clear why Chatham Park popped up on the agenda. Many residents who attended the meeting were surprised that discussion and comments on the proposed 7,000-acre development had been scheduled, since many had assumed that an expanded subcommittee would first review the proposal. However, the expanded subcommittee, which is to include members of the citizen’s group Pittsboro Matters, has not yet been formed.
Nonetheless, Tim Smith of Preston Development, which is behind Chatham Park, gruffly rehashed his assertions that approving the planned community would not give Preston “carte blanche” to devise whatever future it wants for the town. He didn’t hide his frustration with what he sees as sluggishness by commissioners when he very pointedly asked the board, “Do you have any questions for me tonight that I haven’t already answered?”
Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, after pausing with his face in his hands, finally asked Smith to define Preston’s vision for Chatham Park. Smith responded with a version of the three-part motto that Preston has consistently used to brand the project: a sustainable community where people can live, work and play.
“I don’t know what else you want me to say,” Smith said with audible exasperation.
Voller vouched for the intentions of the developers, assuring citizens that Preston wouldn’t simply rezone all the land and let it just lie there undeveloped. This assurance seemed beside the point, however, as prospect of leaving those 7,000 acres without a single house or shopping center on it is hardly what’s keeping Pittsboro’s concerned residents awake at night. Rather the citizen speakers expressed fears about what would happen if the developers did build on that land.
Then Voller told a story about a man who showed him a map of Pittsboro, circa 1860. Voller shared his fear of Pittsboro getting “bogged down in never-ending fighting.” Then he talked about the roads and developments he built with his dad.
And that’s when Voller started to cry.
“I think he would have liked to see us do something good for this town,” Voller said, taking about his father, his voice tight and quivering with emotion. “I’m sitting here at home with my dad’s ashes … and I don’t want to put them in Chatham Forest … I want to put them in some place we can be proud of.”
It may indeed be fitting for Voller to spread the ashes of his developer father across the sprawling lawns and cul-de-sacs and commercial centers of the fifth-largest planned community in the U.S., but this display of emotion didn’t answer lingering questions about the commissioners’ openness to hiring outside experts or ensuring community input in the plan.
The silence in the room suggested that the attending residents were stunned or confused, or both. The other commissioners, however, all got on board, briefly expressing their agreement with Voller’s sentiments.
(Voller did not run for re-election—Bill Terry will be Pittsboro’s next mayor—so maybe it was nostalgia in his final days of leading that town that made him lose his cool.)
Based on the citizen comments at the beginning of the meeting, the audience had a lot more questions than board members did. Several Pittsboro residents urged the board to seek outside experts to evaluate the proposal.
When I asked Tim Smith after the meeting if Preston was open to using outside experts, he said that Preston already has many paid consultants at work on the project and that he believes the town has adequate staff to evaluate the proposal. The town has one manager, one planning director, one parks planner and one engineer.
Pittsboro Matters, a citizen group that has organized around residents’ wishes to be more involved in the planning process maintains that it wants the town to hire outside experts to evaluate the plan. The group has many serious concerns about the environmental and economic impacts of Chatham Park.
According to Smith, however, no resident has requested a meeting with Preston Development. He also says that he hasn’t heard residents talk about specific issues at the board meetings and hearings he’s attended.
“Up to this point they have talked in generalities,” Smith said, speaking about residents with concerns about the development. “It’s not constructive criticism…we would want someone to come with specifics.”
Pittsboro Matters has submitted three names of members to the BOC who have volunteered to be contacted for an expanded town subcommittee on the development review process for Chatham Park and its master plan. According to Jeffrey Starkweather, a leading member of Pittsboro Matters, those members are still waiting to be contacted by the town.