Marathon meeting ends without momentum for Chatham Park
The majority of an often boisterous crowd of about 200 people left the historic Chatham County courthouse in Pittsboro Monday night — or, more accurately, early Tuesday morning — satisfied with their efforts.
Dozens of people gathered around the edge of the courthouse, which sits in the downtown traffic circle, an hour before the 7 p.m. meeting of the Pittsboro Town Commissioners to protest the town board's agenda, waving signs and chanting. They were unhappy that the board was considering voting on a rezoning resolution that would allow the controversial Chatham Park development to begin moving forward.
After the protest, four hours of speeches from the community and another hour of public discussion among themselves, the town commissioners voted 4-1 at around 12:15 a.m. to table the proposal, with Michael Fiocco the lone dissenter. The board then voted unanimously to begin the process of hiring an outside consultant to review the proposed master plan for Chatham Park.
The proposed 7,200-acre, mixed-use development would be the biggest in North Carolina and one of the largest in the country if built. Its developers tout the project as a complement to the nearby Research Triangle Park and say it will bring jobs and money — and as many as 60,000 new residents over the next 30 years — to Chatham County.
Opponents said they're worried about its impact on the environment, as well as on the bucolic charm of the countryside or the quirky, artistic feel of Pittsboro. Yet supporters countered that exactly because of sentiments like those, Chatham County is becoming a bedroom community for the Triangle. They said this project will save it from that fate and spur prosperity.
Benjamin Chavis, the controversial former national director of the NAACP, was one of the last of the 40 or so people who spoke at the start of the meeting. He said the dozens of speakers before him — most of whom opposed the vote and cited environmental concerns — raised excellent points. Yet he urged the town to move forward.
A North Carolina native, he said there are thousands of people in Chatham County struggling to put food on the table who would benefit from a higher quality of life if Chatham Park were to happen.
Emily Wimbish from the Chatham County Habitat for Humanity also spoke about the county's low-income residents, but she urged a delay. She said she was worried there wasn't strong enough language in the proposed master plan regarding the amount and quality of low-income housing.
Several of the protesters also expressed concern that town leaders were trying to force through a proposal that both they and the public in general hadn't had enough time to fully digest. Furthermore, they noted, Pittsboro's newly elected mayor and former town manager, Bill Terry, made his opposition to quick action on the park a key campaign point. He solidly defeated challenger Bill Crawford, a stronger supporter of the park.
But Terry won't be sworn in until December, and Monday's meeting was the last under the guidance of Mayor Randy Voller, who didn't run for re-election. Many cried foul at the timing.
"They've completely eviscerated democracy," said protester John Alderman, an environmental scientist who also spoke about possible environmental problems with the development during the meeting.
Lyle Estill, president of Piedmont Biofuels and an advocate of sustainable energy, called the timing of the vote "slimy" during the protest outside and later, in the courtroom, urged town leaders to slow down and also not be swayed by promises that Chatham Park will be sustainable.
"Are we out of our minds?" asked Estill, whose company is located on Lorax Lane in Pittsboro. "Like, are we joking? Do we think that we can remove the Triangle's last forest and put up some green roofs and be fine?"
Elaine Chiosso, with the Haw River Assembly, raised similar concerns in regard to the area's rivers and lakes, saying: "You cannot put 55,000 people between here and those waters without tremendous negative impact."
Most speakers, however, simply asked for slower progress on the development. Mayor-elect Terry was one of them, calling for a delayed vote, an outside consultant to be hired and a new review committee to be formed.
"I'm not anti-Chatham Park; I'm not the enemy," he said. "I am, however, pro-due process."
The town commissioners ultimately went his way, although none specifically said if he influenced their vote or not. Voller, as mayor, doesn't have a vote but did speak candidly and at length about his experiences as mayor and said he hoped the town would move forward, fearing the delayed vote Monday could push the project back by up to a year.
Many of the protesters thanked Voller for his previous work but said he was misguided on this issue.
Amanda Robertson from Pittsboro Matters — the group that organized the protest and also submitted a petition containing 600 signatures urging the vote to be tabled — noted that many of those protesting Voller and the town commissioners on Monday had campaigned for them in the past.
"This does not mean that we should, or do, relinquish our rights as citizens," she said of that prior support. "Our voices do not diminish once you are elected."