Chatham Park project back on track

Consultant's advice mostly accepted
Mar. 11, 2014 @ 06:28 PM

After rocketing from the early stages of planning to near-approval in November, only to be delayed for Pittsboro's new mayor to take office, the Chatham Park development is again inching forward.

The Pittsboro Board of Town Commissioners recently voted on several dozen items from a consulting group's list of recommendations, approving most of them. The hiring of that consulting group was what swayed the opinions of many who had been previously hesitant about — or outright dismissive of — the massive development that could add as many as 60,000 people to the town that now has a population of 4,000.

Pittsboro Matters was the largest organized group that had voiced concerns over the development, arguing for an outside consultant's view. Many in the group are concerned about the 7,000-acre-plus Chatham Park's impact on small businesses, the environment and other facets of life in Pittsboro and eastern Chatham County where the park would be located.

"We strongly support your approval of all recommendations of the [consultant] as soon as possible," in order for work on the master plan to move forward, the group wrote in a letter distributed at the meeting.

Some in the audience — which was well over the posted capacity of 45 people, many of them from Pittsboro Matters — grumbled loudly whenever the commissioners rejected or tabled items in the report during the meeting, which lasted late into Monday night.

The commissioners ultimately approved most of the 39 recommendations.

Yet Monday's votes didn't necessarily set anything in stone. Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck said the consultant's plan simply creates a framework for future actions and conversations with Preston Development, the company behind Chatham Park.

Commissioner Michael Fiocco said flexibility is important, especially because developers estimate it could take up to 30 years before Chatham Park is finished.

"I don't think this is the board saying 'take it or leave it," Fiocco said. "This is us saying what we want."

Mayor Bill Terry said there will be more public hearings, and he invited the developers to continue communicating with the town officials and staff. The commissioners also voted Monday to look into setting up citizen review panels for the project.

"The back-and-forth can and should continue," Terry said.

One of the major suggestions the commissioners approved was to require either at least 30 percent of the development to be designated as nature conservation areas, or to require all areas considered "ecologically sensitive," plus 5-10 percent more land, be set aside.

Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley said the Briar Chapel development just north of Fearrington set aside nearly 60 percent of its space for conservation. However, she suggested that she could agree with a plan focused specifically on ecologically sensitive areas, even if it came out to a lower percentage.

"Me, personally, I'm in favor of density away from the watershed so you can protect those important areas," Foley said.

The town tweaked another recommendation to make the developers responsible only for road projects connected to the development. Fiocco argued it would be unfair to make them responsible for off-site projects, as had been suggested, and the rest of the board agreed.

Fiocco also tried unsuccessfully to have the board reject uniform height limits for Chatham Park buildings.

He said the developers ought to be able to plan buildings however they envision them, and officials like the fire marshal could always deny plans that would be unsafe or cause other issues. He also said taller buildings are better for the environment because they reduce sprawl.

At that point, some in the audience shouted that tall buildings would block people's views of nature, and Foley argued it would be more sensible for the developer to seek exemptions rather than to put the burden on the town. The board agreed with her and voted to keep the suggestion for height limits.

The board also rejected a suggestion to prohibit any development until a small area plan is adopted, saying that other projects have been allowed to develop up to 15 percent of their land while waiting on such a plan.

It appears, then, that one of the first projects could be a 20-bed hospice facility. Also on Monday, the board unanimously approved a wastewater allocation request from Chatham Park Medical Office and Hospice. That step was required before the facility can have its development plan approved.