PITTSBORO: Town board sued over Chatham Park

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Pittsboro Matters and local citizens filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the town of Pittsboro — challenging its zoning approval for the Chatham Park project. The suit claims the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners violated, among other things, the board's own zoning ordinance.

According to a statement from Amanda Robertson and Jeffrey Starkweather of Pittsboro Matters, the lawsuit asks the court to overturn the approval of the Planned Development District ordinance passed in 2013 and both the master plan and rezoning of Chatham Park passed in June. It also asks for the Town of Pittsboro to be enjoined from issuing any permits for the development.

The rezoning for the Chatham Park project, a mixed-use development which would increase Pittsboro's population by up to 15 times, from 4,000 to 60,000, over the next 30 years, was approved in a vote of 4-1 and affects more than 7,000 acres the project would occupy.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs allege the public hearing on the rezoning did not contain adequate information as required by the board's zoning ordinance.

"Our goal is not to stop this development; our goal is to improve it,” Starkweather said in an interview Wednesday. “Everything we requested would improve the development and give the town and citizens more control over the process.”

Starkweather said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit would be willing to sit down outside of court and revise the master plan in a way that would satisfy Pittsboro Matters, town residents, and the town's expert consultant, the Lawrence Group, which it hired in January to review the proposal. He noted they would be willing to go to court if necessary.

“We believe we have a strong legal case," Starkweather said in the statement, "and are willing to litigate to the fullest extent required.”

The statement said the Lawrence Group offered a number of recommendations, such as setting aside at the start of the design of the project at least 30 percent of the total land as conservation areas and another 10 percent for active recreation, reducing residential development adjacent to the Haw River and requiring detailed guidelines before any individual plans are approved.

According to the statement, Chatham Park Investors rejected many of the recommendations, and the town board ultimately gave in to the developers, Preston Development, approving the master plan without requiring the recommended actions.

Commissioner Mike Fiocco was outspoken in his support for the Chatham Park project and was quick to defend Preston Development during the June 9 commissioner meeting where the rezoning was approved.

"[Preston Development] has a track record of being a good developer," Fiocco said at the meeting. "This document we have here has interjected greater amenities into this project that would otherwise be achieved by multiple developers coming in one at a time asking for a rezoning. The fact that we are looking at a comprehensive plan is a very good thing for Pittsboro."

Preston Development was not named in the lawsuit, but Owner Tim Smith provided a statement Wednesday on behalf of the company.

"We are disappointed to learn that a small group of individuals feels the need to file a complaint against the town of Pittsboro Board of Commissioners regarding Chatham Park's zoning approval," Smith said. "We believe that the commissioners did their due diligence prior to taking a vote by holding public hearings in which residents could express thoughts and concerns regarding the development."

Smith said it would be inappropriate for the company to comment further, as the dispute was between the town and the plaintiffs.

In its statement, Pittsboro Matters asks for more stringent protections of the Haw River and Jordan Lake, which run adjacent to some areas of the development. It also requests Preston Development provide land for school sites on the property and perform an assessment of environmental impacts, traffic, fiscal and social-economic impacts of the project.

In the June 9 meeting, Commissioner Pamela Baldwin expressed her belief that the project would have a positive economic impact on the town

"I ran on economic development and planned growth," Baldwin said during the meeting. "This is a prime example of planned growth. Instead of having a lot of different developers coming in and there being different types of [projects], this is one you can see thoroughly through."

Robertson said the town needed to be concerned with more than the economic side of the project and needed to ensure Pittsboro would retain its identity.

"We want to make the Chatham Park plan a better plan that would better serve the environment and the community and the culture everybody knows Pittsboro for," Robertson said, noting that the distinct "small town culture" is one of the town's main draws in attracting residents and visitors.

None of the five board members responded to calls Wednesday, and Pittsboro Mayor Bill Terry had no comment on the lawsuit.

"As a common rule, we would not comment on pending litigation," Terry said Wednesday afternoon. " ... The suit has been filed so recently that the town hasn't been served notice yet. Even after we get it, any comments would come from our town attorney."

Pittsboro Town Attorney Paul S. Messick Jr. did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.